Asparagus season varies based on the climate in which it is grown, though it typically matures in early summer in the US northern latitudes and even earlier in southern states, like Texas. In tropical regions of the world, such as the state of Hawaii or warm Mediterranean climates like those of southern Italy and Greece, asparagus season is year round. The plant, however, only lasts 90 days per season, so crops need to be planted incrementally to receive a steady harvest throughout the year.

A member of the lily family, asparagus comes from the Greek word, asparagos, which first appeared in English print around 1000 A.D. It cannot be definitively traced to any one specific area of origin, although it is known to be native to the eastern Mediterranean and Asia Minor areas.

As early as 200 BC, Cato , a Roman statesman and author, gave excellent growing instructions for asparagus, in his work, De Agri Cultura. The ancient Egyptians cultivated asparagus and Romans, from Pliny to Julius Caesar to Augustus, prized the wild variety. “As quick as cooking asparagus” was an old Roman saying meaning something accomplished rapidly.

The asparagus growing beds in Northern Italy were famous during the Renaissance period. These graceful spears have always been a sign of elegance, and in times past, were a delicacy only the wealthy could afford. Roman emperors were so fond of asparagus, that they kept a special asparagus fleet for the purpose of fetching it.

Asparagus spears grow from a crown planted in sandy soils and, under ideal conditions, can grow 10 inches in a 24-hour period. The most common types are green, but you might see two others in supermarkets and restaurants: white, which is more delicate and difficult to harvest, and purple, which is smaller and fruitier.

This large vegetable is one of the most nutritionally well-balanced vegetables — high in folic acid and a good source of potassium, fiber, thiamin and vitamins A, B6 and C.  A 5-ounce serving provides 60% of the RDA for folic acid and is low in calories. You can enjoy this vegetable raw or with minimal preparation.

Like all vegetables, asparagus doesn’t instantly “die” when it is picked but continues to engage in metabolic activity. This metabolic activity includes intake of oxygen, the breaking down of starches and sugars and the releasing of carbon dioxide. The speed at which these processes occur is typically referred to as “respiration rate.” Compared to most other vegetables, asparagus has a very high respiration rate. Asparagus’ very high respiration rate makes it more perishable than its other vegetables and also much more likely to lose water, wrinkle and harden.

Three types of asparagus are pictured with white asparagus at the back and green asparagus in the middle. The plant at the front is wild asparagus.

Since asparagus varieties most commonly available in the U.S. are green in color, you are most likely to find these green-colored varieties in your grocery store.

Two other types of asparagus that are widely grown aside from the typical green variety are white asparagus and purple asparagus. These strains have the same asparagus season for harvesting and only differ in appearance and size.

White asparagus is produced by keeping the stems of the plant buried under mounds of dirt which prevents them from being infused with green chlorophyll from interaction with sunlight and gives the plants’ shoots a more mild and softer texture.

Purple asparagus was first grown in Italy and is a larger than normal strain with a sweeter taste. It is a hybrid plant where the spear edges of the stems are noticeably purple and is named Violetto d/Albenga after the Albenga north-western region of Italy situated along the Gulf of Genoa. 

Purple varieties typically have a higher sugar content than green and white varieties and for this reason have a sweeter taste. Even with this higher sugar content, asparagus is anything but a high-sugar food. We’re talking about 3 grams of total sugar per cup of fresh asparagus — less than half of the amount in an extra small apple.

Asparagus stalks should be rounded and not twisted. Look for firm, thin stems with deep green or purplish closed tips. The cut ends should not be too woody, although a little woodiness at the base prevents the stalk from drying out. Once trimmed and cooked, asparagus loses about half its total weight. Use asparagus within a day or two after purchasing for best flavor and texture. Store in the refrigerator with the ends wrapped in a damp paper towel.

Cooking Wild Asparagus

As asparagus grows almost everywhere in Italy there are many regional asparagus recipes. The spears can be boiled for a few minutes and served as a side dish with a splash of olive oil and lemon juice or added to an omelette. The tender tips have a delicate flavor and taste the best with as little cooking as possible.

To make a simple pasta dish: cut the asparagus shoots into medium length pieces and then saute them for 3-4 minutes along with some finely chopped garlic, pepperoncino (chilli pepper) and a few shavings of lemon zest. Pour this mixture over cooked spaghettini (a thinner variety of spaghetti) and sprinkle with pecorino-romano cheese.

 

Italian Asparagus Gratin ( Asparagi alla Parmigiana)

Roasting is an excellent way to prepare asparagus. Asparagi alla parmigiana is a springtime favorite in northern Italy.

4 to 6 servings

Ingredients:

  • Asparagus, trimmed — 2 pounds
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • Parmesan cheese, grated — 1/2 to 2/3 cup
  • Salt and pepper — to taste

Directions:

Preheat oven to 450°F. Oil a shallow baking dish that is just large enough to hold the asparagus. Place a layer of asparagus in the dish with the tips all facing the same direction. Sprinkle with a little salt and pepper and some of the cheese. Keep adding layers until all asparagus and all cheese is used, finishing with the cheese.

Drizzle with olive oil and place the dish on the top rack of the oven. Bake for about 15-20 minutes, or until the asparagus is cooked through and beginning to brown and the cheese is melted.

Asparagus and Sausage Pizza

Ingredients:

  • 1 lb. Dough for Pizza
  • 1/2 pound asparagus, trimmed and cut into 1/2-inch long pieces
  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 large sweet red pepper, seeded and cut into 1/4-inch wide strips
  • 1/2 pound sweet Italian sausage with fennel, casing removed
  • 3/4 cup shredded provolone cheese, or cheese of choice

Directions:

Preheat the oven to 375°F.

Place the asparagus in a skillet and add 1 cup water. Cook until the asparagus are tender; drain and transfer to a bowl.

In the same skillet add the olive oil and cook the peppers until they soften. Transfer to the bowl with the asparagus.

In the same skillet, cook the sausage until it is no longer pink. Cool.

Pat the dough into a large pizza pan. Spread the sausage over the dough.

Spread the asparagus and peppers over the sausage. Sprinkle the provolone over all.

Bake until the crust is brown and the cheese has melted. Slice and serve.

Spring Asparagus and White Bean Salad

Makes 4 – 1cup servings

Ingredients:

  • 3 cups asparagus, cut into 1-inch pieces (about 1½ lb)
  • 1½ cups canned cannellini beans, rinsed and drained
  • 5 thinly sliced radishes
  • 1/2 cup (2 oz) crumbled feta
  • 1 medium shallot, peeled and minced
  • 1 tablespoon chopped fresh mint

Dressing:

  • 2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
  • 1 tteapsoon grated lemon zest
  • 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
  • 2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/8 teaspoon black pepper

Directions

Steam asparagus, covered, 2 minutes or until crisp-tender.

Rinse asparagus with cold water and drain.

Gently combine asparagus, beans, radishes, feta, shallot and fresh mint in a serving bowl.

Make the dressing by combining lemon juice, lemon zest, mustard, olive oil, salt and pepper and whisk to combine.

Pour dressing over asparagus mixture and toss gently to coat.

Rigatoni with Bacon and Asparagus

8 Servings

Ingredients:

  • 1 package (16 ounces) whole wheat rigatoni pasta
  • 1 pound fresh asparagus, trimmed and coarsely chopped
  • 8 bacon strips
  • 1 garlic clove, minced
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 2/3 cup fat free half-and-half cream
  • 1/2 cup shredded part-skim mozzarella cheese
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 cup minced fresh parsley
  • 1/8 teaspoon coarsely ground pepper
  • 1/4 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

Directions:

Cook pasta according to package directions. (Cook asparagus with pasta during the last 3 min.) Drain.

In the same pan, cook bacon over medium heat until crisp. Remove to paper towels to drain. Crumble bacon and set aside. Drain fat from pan.

Add butter and oil to the pan and heat. Saute garlic briefly. Stir in cream.

Bring to a boil. Reduce heat; simmer, uncovered, for 3-4 minutes or until slightly thickened.

Stir in mozzarella cheese until melted. Add drained pasta and asparagus. Stir in the salt, parsley and reserved bacon. Sprinkle with pepper and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.

 

Asparagus and Herb Lasagna

The lasagna takes some time to make, but it can be prepared the day before you entertain. It keeps very well for a day or two in the refrigerator before you bake it.

Ingredients:

  • 2 large garlic cloves, peeled
  • Salt
  • 2 pounds asparagus
  • 1 recipe Olive Oil Bechamel, recipe below
  • 3/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon freshly grated Parmesan
  • 1/2 cup finely chopped fresh herbs, such as tarragon, parsley, chives, basil
  • 12 no-boil lasagna noodles

Directions:

Fill a pasta pot with water and add the garlic cloves. Bring to a boil while you trim the asparagus by breaking off the woody ends but do not discard. When the water comes to a boil, add salt and the asparagus woody ends. Reduce the heat to medium low, cover partially and simmer the asparagus ends for 30 minutes. Remove the asparagus ends and the garlic cloves from the water and discard.

Bring the water back to a boil and add the asparagus stalks. Boil thick asparagus stalks for five minutes or medium and thin stalks for three minutes. Transfer them, using a spider or tongs, to a bowl of ice water. Do not drain the cooking water.

Allow the asparagus to cool for a few minutes, then drain and dry on a clean kitchen towel. Cut the asparagus into 1-inch lengths. Set aside.

Make the bechamel sauce according to directions below.

Whisk 1/2 cup of the cooking water from the asparagus into the béchamel, along with 1/4 cup of the Parmesan cheese and the herbs. Add freshly ground pepper to taste and adjust salt.

Oil or butter a 3-quart baking dish or lasagna dish.

Bring the asparagus cooking water back to a rolling boil and drop in 3 lasagna noodles. Boil just until the pasta is flexible (about three minutes for no-boil lasagna). Using tongs, transfer the pasta to drain on a clean dish towel.

Set aside 1/3 cup of the bechamel sauce for the top of the lasagna and spread a very thin layer of bechamel over the bottom of the baking dish. Cover with the just parboiled pasta noodles.

Stir the asparagus into the remaining bechamel and spread a layer over the noodles. Sprinkle on 2 tablespoons Parmesan.

Parboil another layer’s worth of pasta, top with the asparagus bechamel sauce and with another 2 tablespoons of Parmesan.

Repeat with one more layer. End with a layer of pasta and spread the 1/3 cup reserved bechamel sauce over the top and sprinkle on the remaining Parmesan.

Cover tightly with plastic, if storing in the refrigerator.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Drizzle 1 tablespoon of olive oil over the lasagna and cover tightly with foil. Bake for 30 minutes until bubbling. Uncover and continue to bake until the top just begins to color, about 10 minutes. Remove from the ocen. Allow the lasagna to sit five to 10 minutes before serving.

Serves 6-8

Make Ahead: You can prepare this dish up to a day or two before you bake it. Don’t drizzle on the last tablespoon of olive oil until you’re ready to bake. Wrap tightly in plastic and refrigerate. Remove the plastic and replace with foil before baking.

Olive Oil Bechamel

The main thing to watch for here is scorching. Stir often with a rubber spatula, especially at the bottom and edges of the pan, so that the mixture doesn’t stick and begin to burn. If it does, immediately pour the sauce into another pot and continue to cook over very low heat.

Ingredients:

  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons finely chopped shallot
  • 2 tablespoons flour
  • 2 cups low-fat milk
  • Salt to taste
  • Freshly ground white or black pepper

Directions:

Heat the oil over medium heat in a heavy medium saucepan. Add the shallot and cook, stirring, until softened, about three minutes. Stir in flour and cook, stirring, for about three minutes until smooth and bubbling but not browned. The paste should have the texture of wet sand. Whisk in the milk all at once and bring to a simmer, whisking all the while.

Turn the heat to very low and simmer, stirring often with a whisk and scraping the bottom and edges of the pan with a rubber spatula, for about 10 minutes or until the sauce thickens. Season with salt and pepper. 

Variation: Substitute vegetable stock for the milk for a vegan version of this sauce.

Makes 1 1/2 cups

Wild Italian Asparagus

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