Produce of the Week - Asparagus
sponsored by Coleman Farms
How could it have taken so long to find asparagus at the market? Perhaps we missed it because of its specialness: it traditionally has a short season and it's a type unto itself, unlike other vegetables in appearance, texture and taste. You can say "Kale is kin to cabbage, and it shows in their flavors" or "chicory is bitter like summer romaine, only more so"; but what can you compare asparagus to? Well, the texture is something like certain mushrooms, but that seems so far-fetched as to be nearly useless.
It has a very distinctive flavor, but one that is not dominant, the way chicory or beetroot might be, and one that is more complex than, say, broccoli or turnip. Asparagus does have a bit of broccoli/turnip to it, since all of these have sensible amounts of sulphur compounds in their flavor set. But the two brassicas are generally content to present these flavors, if you're lucky, with a mustardy edge, and a lot of 'greeness' in the case of broccoli, or sweetness and, again if you're lucky, a bit of citrus, in the case of the turnip. Asparagus presents all these, plus elements of nut, a kind of 'oakiness', distinctive metallic notes, and more, resulting in a complex flavor but not a strong one, as you'll often find in brassicas and some other vegetables. Similarly with the texture. Though it's slipperiness give the fastidious diner pause, it goes unnoticed when asparagus is dressed with a bit of vinaigrette (and so any slipperiness is accepted as being due to the dressing) or combined with other ingredients. Then we concentrate on the texture per se, which, like the flavor, is not dominant - neither crunchy, nor altogether yielding, not over wet nor over dry, but at the same time distinctive, because of the combination of flesh and fibre and a slight jamminess.
Because both texture and flavor are distinctive but non-dominant, and the flavor contains elements from a broad range of edibles, asparagus can be succesfully combined with just about any savory ingredient you can think of, as a glance at some recipes suggests. It's not too solid for a mixed salad, nor too soft for a pasta salad. It's complex nuttiness will stand out in an omelete, even one containg peppers and onions, but will not dominate something as mild as a potato. For all its individuality, a salient property of asparagus is that, however nice it is on its own, it works well with just about anything, from soup to nuts, you might say, not to forget the cheese.
The traditional way to cook asparagus is boiling or steaming - either in a steamer or in a gadget-rich kitchen, in an asparagus cooker, which is a covered cylinder designed to hold a bunch of asparagus upright, with the base sitting in an inch or two of boiling water. There has been a trend, however, to roast (or grill) asparagus: preheat the oven to about 450 degrees F. and put the asparagus, very lightly oiled, in for maybe ten minutes, until it's as done as you like it. This seems energy intensive, and I haven't tried it, but I have had grilled asparagus - which was promising, although drowned in a mediocre oil - and I expect roasting is a very good way to cook a large batch of asparagus, particularly if you've already got a hot oven. There's nothing wrong with cooking more, even a lot more, than you can eat at one sitting, since it's good the next day, pretty much any way you choose. How about an asparagus grilled cheese sandwich? roasted peppers, caramelized onions...