Other Names: Sparrowgrass.

General Description: Asparagus (Asparagus officinalis_), a perennial plant in the lily family, is the cultivated version of wild asparagus shoots (_Asparagus acutifolius) that grow in the Mediterranean. The ancient Egyptians and Greeks ate wild asparagus shoots as a rare spring delicacy, and asparagus has been prized by nobility for hundreds of years. In England, “sprue” is the name for extra-thin spears, called “grass asparagus” or “spaghetti grass” in America.

An underground stem (or crown) produces edible shoots for about 6 weeks each spring. If left alone, the tips (actually branches-to-be) sprout into tall, feathery, dill-like fronds. Because the shoots must be harvested by hand, asparagus is a high-priced vegetable. Asparagus is a diuretic and you may notice a distinctive odor in your urine after eating it.

Spears range in size from pencil-thin to thick jumbo stalks. Many Northern Europeans prefer white asparagus because of its delicate flavor and fiberless texture. To grow white asparagus, farmers cover the ground with a mound of loose earth to prevent exposure to sunlight, which would turn the stalks green. In asparagus season in Germany, restaurants offer a Spargelkarte, a special asparagus menu. Thin asparagus is popular in Italy, while Proven├žal cooks prize violet asparagus.

Season: Asparagus is available year-round in American supermarkets, but for best flavor and price, buy asparagus at the end of November until early July, with peak season from March through June.

Purchase: Pick firm, plump, straight, round spears in a medium green with purple highlights. The tips should be tight and compact and the white, woody bottoms should be less than 15 percent of the total length. The cut ends should be white or light-colored. The spears should snap easily when bent. Give the bunch a squeeze; if it squeaks, it’s fresh. Because younger plants produce larger shoots, large or jumbo spears can be more tender than thin ones.

Avoid: Do not purchase asparagus with wet, slimy, or smelly tips. Reject shriveled spears. Spears with large, white, woody stalks and only a few inches of green at the tips have been harvested too late and will be tough.

Storage: Cut off 1 inch from the bottom, wrap the fresh-cut area in a wet paper towel, place in a plastic bag, and store in the refrigerator crisper. Asparagus will keep 2 to 3 days. To prolong shelf life, stand asparagus, cut-end down, in 1 inch of water.

Preparation: Peel the bottom third of the asparagus spears for maximum yield. Alternatively, break or cut off each stalk at its natural breaking point, atop the tough white part.

Serving Suggestions: Boil spears horizontally in 1 inch of water in a non reactive skillet 3 to 5 minutes, turning occasionally, then remove and run under cold water to “shock” and set the color. Toss cooked asparagus with browned butter or extra virgin olive oil, and lemon juice. Dress steamed asparagus with vinaigrette. Stir-fry cut spears. Roast seasoned asparagus in a hot oven.

Flavor Affinities: Butter, cheese, chervil, eggs, lemon, olive oil, pasta, rice or risotto, seafood, tarragon, tomato.

from Quirk Books: