SEASON: Look for asparagus in the market from February to June, with April being the peak.
CHOOSING: Fresh asparagus will be bright green with no signs of shriveling. The tender tips may have a purplish cast, but they should be firm and tight, never mushy. The cut end will be thick and fibrous—the plant’s reaction to the injury of cutting. This end is cut off before cooking, but if the shoots are fresh, you may lose only an inch.
STORING: You can place asparagus in a produce bag in your vegetable bin; however, it’s more likely to get bruised, broken, or left too long. To keep asparagus in prime condition, trim the cut ends, stand them in a glass of water, cover with plastic, and refrigerate (glass and all) for up to two days.
GROWING: Gardeners in all but the coldest and warmest parts of the country can grow asparagus. The perennial underground roots need a season long enough to store energy for lots of fat spears, and they need enough cold weather to go dormant for a while.
If you plant asparagus from seed, you should wait three years before the first harvest since picking early will drastically reduce yield as well as quality. To get a jump start, begin in spring with 1-year-old crowns (bare plant roots without leaves) rather than seeds as harvest can begin to a limited degree the next year. Opt for the male hybrid plants that outproduce older types. Once they mature, expect to harvest about 1⁄2 pound per crown. How much to plant depends on how much your family likes asparagus, but about five crowns per person is a good place to start.
You only get one chance to prepare a bed that will sustain these plants for years to come, so do it right. Select a site that is sunny, well drained, and out of the way of other garden activities. Work aged manure and compost into a bed 2 feet wide, and dig a 6- to 8-inch trench the length of the bed. Sprinkle superphosphate fertilizer into the trench as you would salt popcorn. Then set the crowns 1 1⁄2 feet apart. If you have two rows, space them 6 feet apart. Cover the crowns, mulch, and water well.
PREPARING: First, thoroughly wash the asparagus. You don't want to soak it; just hold the stalks upside down under cold water and shake them a bit to release any sand that might be caught in the tips. Then hold both ends of each spear and bend; the tough, fibrous base should snap right off. (This step is unnecessary in thinner spears, which are completely edible.) Then, pick one of three easy ways to prepare this delicate spring treat:
• Boil it. To boil asparagus, tie the stalks together with kitchen string, then stand them up in a cooking pot so the tips are just above the water line. If the stalks are too tall to allow you to use the regular lid to the pan, invert another pan on top instead. (Note: glass and ceramic coffeepots make ideal asparagus cookers.) Cook them only until they're crisp-tender, then remove them from the heat and drain them thoroughly.
• Nuke it. You can also cook asparagus in the microwave. Arrange the stalks spoke-fashion, tips toward the center, in about two tablespoons of water in a round baking dish. Cover and cook at HIGH for 7 to 10 minutes, or until crisp-tender. Be sure to rotate the dish half way through if you're not using a carousel.
• Eat it raw. Slice thin, fresh asparagus and add to a salad, or serve whole spears alongside your favorite dip.
Health benefits: Eating this tender veggie is an excellent way to help protect yourself against heart disease, as it contains lots of folate, as well vitamins E, A, and C. In addition to helping your heart, folate (a B vitamin) helps cells regenerate; vitamin E fights Type II diabetes; and vitamins A and C help hold cancer and cataracts at bay. Asparagus also contains potassium, which helps lower blood pressure and perhaps even cholesterol.
Nutritional info: One-half cup of boiled asparagus (about six spears) equals approximately 22 calories, 1.4 grams of fiber, 2.3 grams of protein, 0.3 gram of fat (0.1 of it saturated), 10 milligrams of sodium, and no cholesterol.