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Kinds of Asparagus

And how to select and prepare asparagus.


Asparagus: Tying the bunch

Asparagus: Tying the bunch

© Kyle Phillips licensed to About.com
There are a number of kinds of asparagus spears, all of which are the shoots of Asparagus officinalis, a perennial plant that, if allowed to mature, develop into fern-like fronds.
  • Wild asparagus spears are thin, spindly, and packed with flavor. In Italy they're readily available in markets, though it's more fun to go out into the woods and pick them. Peggy Towbridge, notes, in her discussion of asparagus, that going out for a walk in the woods is about the only way to find them in the US.
  • Green asparagus is the most common kind, and can vary from pencil-thick to inch-thick spears.
  • White asparagus is green asparagus that's deliberately kept in the dark, a process known as etiolation; as a result no chlorophyll develops in the spears, which remain white. It's slightly more delicate than regular asparagus, and is especially popular around Bassano del Grappa, in the highlands of the Vicentino.
  • Purple asparagus is green or white veering towards purple at the tip. In terms of flavor it resembles regular asparagus.
Asparagus is sold by the bunch; when buying it select a bunch whose spears are all the same diameter so they will cook at the same rate. The spears should be firm and smooth all the way down to the bottom (if the lower half of the bundle is wrapped in paper peel it back and check). Wrinkled or flabby spears are past their prime, as are those that smell sharp. When you get them home you can keep them for a day or two in the refrigerator, but not much longer -- with time the sugars in the spears convert to starch, producing a woody texture.

If you do store your asparagus, stand the spears upright in a jar, in a mixture of water and dry white wine, which will add pleasing nuances to their flavor.

Preparation is in most cases simple: boil asparagus in lightly salted water and serve it with a sauce or seasoning, or use it in the preparation of another dish, for example a risotto. However, the process does require care, and the results will be better if you have an asparagus pot, which is thin and quite tall, and may come with a basket-like insert.

Begin by washing your asparagus well, and trimming the ends so as to have spears that are all the same length -- in making the cuts, start at the end of the spear and work towards the tip, making the cut where the knife penetrates the stalk easily. Depending upon their diameter, you may want to scrape the last 2 inches or so of the spears to remove woody filaments. With thinner commercially grown spears or wild asparagus scraping shouldn't be necessary. Next, loosely tie your asparagus into a bunch and stand it upright in the asparagus pot. Fill the pot so the water comes about 3 inches up the asparagus stalks, remove the stalks, and bring the water to a rolling boil. Salt it lightly, stand the bundle of stalks in it, cover, and cook for 5-8 minutes, or until the tips are tender and begin to droop -- the direct heat of the boiling water insures that the tougher bases of the stems will cook, while the gentler steam heat will keep the tips from overcooking or getting sodden.

Keep in mind that the asparagus will continue to cook for a minute or two once you have removed it from the pot, and that given a choice most people prefer asparagus under rather than overcooked.

From a nutritional standpoint, asparagus is rich in Vitamins A and C, and very rich in iron, which makes it useful in treating some kinds of anemia. It's also rich in fiber, which makes it good for those with lazy digestions. However, some of its aromatic compounds are irritating, and make it unsuitable for those who suffer from gout or renal problems. This brings up another thing: In some people asparagus has a marked affect on the urine, which takes on a distinctive animal tang that did create problems in the days of chamber pots. Artusi, writing in 1891, observed that, by adding some turpentine to the pot, one could transform the odor into the "sweet scent of violets."

Asparagus: Background | Italian Asparagus Recipes

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