Asparagus: The Green Or White Treat

In the United States, asparagus season begins in April in the warm southwestern states, to late June when it reaches its peak in the Northeast. Whether steamed, boiled, roasted or grilled, asparagus makes a great first course, side dish or salad.

Asparagus is high in nutrition, providing 60 percent of the recommended daily allowance for folacin per 5.3-ounce serving. Asparagus is also a good source of thiamin, vitamins A and C, vitamin B6, fiber and potassium.

Although Americans are more familiar with green asparagus, Europeans adore the white version. Contrary to common belief, white asparagus is not a different variety from the green. Instead, it is produced by covering the spears with mulch or a plastic cover to prevent exposure to sunlight. Deprived of sunlight, asparagus can't develop chlorophyll, which gives all green vegetables their vibrant color.

The tough, woody end of the asparagus should be removed before cooking. To do this, hold the spear about halfway down the stalk with one hand. With your other hand, grasp the stalk using your thumb and index finger about one and one-half inches from the bottom. Bend the stalk until it snaps, breaking away the tough end.

Chefs vary on whether or not to peel the spears before cooking them. Generally, the larger the spear, the more fibrous its outer skin, and the greater the need to peel. Peeled asparagus also makes an elegant presentation. On the other hand, if you have tender, pencil-thin asparagus, why peel?

Here are some tips for selecting and cooking asparagus:

  • When choosing asparagus, look for firm, fresh spears with closed, compact tips. Pick spears that are uniform in diameter so all will cook in the same amount of time.
  • To grill asparagus, lightly brush with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Grill for about 2 minutes on each side until asparagus are tender. Serve with Creamy Soy Dip.
  • To boil, cook for 5 to 7 minutes or until crisp and tender. To maintain its beautiful green color, boil asparagus in an uncovered pan, which will allow the vegetable's natural acids to escape.
  • Steaming asparagus produces tender spears with fewer nutrients lost to the cooking water. To steam, place vegetables in a steamer basket just above boiling water. Cover the pan and steam 4 to 5 minutes for small spears or 5 to 6 minutes for larger spears.

To determine doneness for all cooking methods, pierce asparagus with a skewer or knife. The vegetable should have some resistance with a slightly crunchy, but not fibrous texture. Also, pick up a spear with tongs; the spear should bend slightly instead of being completely rigid.

Fresh asparagus is delicious with a little olive or almond oil drizzled over it or topped with Creamy Almond Sauce. Another variation is to serve it in a salad, such as Spring Salad with Almond Spinaigrette, which combines asparagus with toasted almonds, red potatoes, cherry tomatoes and tuna. All you need to add is fresh bread and an assortment of cured olives for a hearty lunch or dinner.

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