In these parts, asparagus is synonymous with spring. Like its relative the lily, when the sun warms the ground and spring is a sure thing, it peeks brave, skinny heads up through winter-brown dirt and leaves. If you’re clever, you might find wild asparagus hiding from foraging deer in grassy fields, the sun darkening its pale stalks into a rich emerald.
Otherwise you’ll just have to wait until local fields give up their harvest. Addictions to asparagus have been known to develop from roadside asparagus stands in Leelanau County: desperate cooks feature the spring stalks at every meal and potluck until they dwindle away.
You’d be forgiven if you consider asparagus uniquely Midwestern American. Sources commonly agree that the coastal regions of Europe and western Asia are the native range of Asparagus officinalis. European settlers brought it to North America in the 1700s. China is by far the world's largest producer of the beloved green stalks (there are white and purple varieties), followed by Peru, Mexico and the U.S., where production is concentrated in California, Michigan and Washington state.
True asparagus lovers never, ever buy their slim stems out of season. Why risk a tasteless and woody mouthful? Wait until your local stand displays its lush and juicy green shoots. Choose them with tips tightly closed and stalks at least 1/2-inch thick for the choicest inner flesh. Avoid asparagus with white, woody bases; asparagus should be at least 3/4 green. Count on 1/2 pound of asparagus per person (3/4 pound for the really addicted). Hurry your asparagus from harvest to the cook pot; it loses quality quickly. Treat your asparagus spears kindly. If you must store them, think of the spears as the flowers that they are: remove the end of the stalks and store them upright in water in the refrigerator. Asparagus stored at 32 degrees loses only half its sugar in two weeks but at 70 degrees it will take only a couple of days.
Asparagus likes short cooking. That makes it ideal for harried and hurried cooks. To equalize cooking between tip and stem, instead of snapping away and discarding thick stems, peel the tough outer skin on the lower stem.
Most northern Michigan cooks pair asparagus with its spring allies: morels, wild leeks, chives and fiddlehead ferns. Consume these luscious spring energizers with every meal throughout their fleeting (six-week) season cold or hot: asparagus and leek pureed soup, asparagus bruschetta, omelet with asparagus, salad with steamed asparagus spears, morels and grilled chicken, grilled asparagus, steamed asparagus with hollandaise, asparagus wrapped in prosciutto, asparagus tart, pasta with asparagus and peas — and don’t forget asparagus and mushroom risotto.
If you’re looking for new ways to prepare asparagus, you could surprise your friends and family with a Chinese twist like stir-fried Chinese asparagus with scallops. The South China Post reports some Hong Kong restaurant offerings during white asparagus season: “…poached white asparagus with hollandaise sauce and Parma ham; raw asparagus salad with avocado, crab meat, lemon dressing and caviar; risotto with white asparagus, mascarpone cheese and red prawn tartare; and lobster ravioli with white asparagus and fresh cherry tomato sauce.”
Don’t fear; there are numerous simple, quick cooking methods for our spring bounty, like steaming, grilling or roasting. Instead of buying a fancy asparagus steamer, use your regular steamer basket to steam asparagus until a knife tip easily pierces a stalk.
Then you need do no more than crown them with a little butter and salt.
Szechuan Asparagus with Garlic, Ginger and Chilies
Don’t eat the whole red chilies. Serve this dish with rice and tofu or chicken.
Yields 4 servings
1-1/2 lb. asparagus
2 T. mild oil like canola or avocado
1/2 t. crushed Szechuan peppercorns, optional
1 t. fermented, salted black beans, rinsed and drained, optional
2 T. finely minced garlic
1 T. peeled and grated or minced gingerroot
1 t. Chinese chili paste
5 to 8 whole dried red chilies
2 t. soy sauce
2 T. Chinese rice wine or sherry
1 t. balsamic vinegar
2 whole green onions, finely sliced
1/3 c. roasted crushed peanuts or cashews
Trim off tough ends of asparagus and cut spears into 2-inch pieces. Assemble ingredients ready to use by stove top.
In a wok, heat 1-1/2 tablespoons oil on high heat until oil is wavy and hot but not smoking. Add asparagus and stir-fry until seared and crisp-tender, 2 to 3 minutes. Transfer to bowl.
Lower heat to medium high. Add remaining oil. Stir in Szechuan peppercorns and black beans and cook 30 seconds. Add ginger and garlic; stir constantly until garlic is tender, about 30 seconds.
Lower heat to medium. Add chilies and sherry or rice wine. Add remaining ingredients (except for nuts and scallions). Stir in asparagus and cook until it is al dente and liquid has reduced. Pour onto serving platter. Garnish with nuts and scallions. Serve immediately.
Asparagus Shandong-Style (Liang Ban Lu-sun)
A specialty of Shandong province, this dish is traditionally reserved for banquets because asparagus is so expensive in China.
Yields 2 to 4 servings
1-1⁄2 lb. asparagus, trimmed and cut crosswise on the diagonal into 2-inch pieces
1 T. Japanese reduced-sodium soy sauce
1-1/2 t. Asian sesame oil
1 t. toasted sesame seeds
Set up a pot with a steamer basket and add water; bring to boil over high heat. Add asparagus to basket and cook until tender-crisp and bright green, 2 to 4 minutes. Do not overcook. Rinse asparagus with cold water, drain, pat dry with paper towel and set aside.
Whisk together soy sauce and sesame oil in a medium bowl. Add asparagus and toss. Transfer to a serving bowl and garnish with sesame seeds.
Chinese Pork and Asparagus Soup
Inspired by Mongolia hot pot this recipe combines ginger, broth, asparagus and noodles into a quicker-than-carry-out meal.
Adapted from Sunset Magazine
Yields 4 servings
6 oz. dried chow mein noodles or other thick noodles
5 c. reduced-sodium chicken broth
1 T. finely grated fresh ginger
3 T. reduced-sodium soy sauce
1 lb. pork tenderloin or boneless, skinless chicken breast, fat trimmed
1 lb. asparagus, ends trimmed, cut into 1-inch pieces
1/4 c. sliced green onions
Cook noodles according to package directions; drain, then set aside. Meanwhile, in a large saucepan, combine broth, ginger and soy sauce and bring to a simmer over medium heat.
Thinly slice pork or chicken and add to broth along with asparagus. Stir to separate meat slices and cook until meat is no longer pink, 3 to 5 minutes. Stir in noodles and heat through; garnish with green onions. Ladle soup into four soup bowls and serve hot. Serve with Sriracha.
*Look for Sriracha, an Asian red chili sauce, in the Asian food section.