Asparagus (from the Persian word asparag, meaning a sprout), are slim green spears, often tinged with a bit of purple at the tip. Europeans are more familiar with white asparagus which is grown completely underground to prevent it from becoming green. There is also a purple variety called Viola. Asparagus plants usually live 8 to 10 years, and the size of the asparagus spear is relative to the age of the plant; in other words, the thicker the vegetable, the older the plant.
March - July
Look for firm, bright green stalks with tight, compact heads. Choose firm spears with tightly closed leaves. Avoid spears that are dry, limp, or wrinkled, or have ruffled tips with leaves spread out from the stalk. Thinner spears are usually more tender. Uniformity in size is important for even cooking. One pound equals 16 to 20 spears, or about two cups chopped. Available year round from hothouses, but true growing season is February to June.
Stand unwashed stalks upright in about an inch of water and cover them (and the container) with a plastic bag, or wrap the stem ends in a wet paper towel and seal the asparagus in a plastic bag. Asparagus will keep for only about three days refrigerated.
Hold the stalks upside down under cold water and 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. 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. 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. Asparagus are also quite tasty marinated and grilled briefly. Slice thin, fresh raw asparagus and add to a salad, or serve whole spears alongside your favorite dip.
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