If you’ve ever passed an asparagus field, you’ve probably wondered how those wispy, fernlike plants could produce the firm, tall stalks that are as eagerly anticipated in spring as the first robin.
But asparagus plants (Asparagus officinalis) are much hardier than they look. Members of the lily family, they can produce stalks for up to 15 years. And they’re fast-growing—spears can spurt 10 inches in just 24 hours.
And the plants can literally be buried alive to produce white asparagus, a European favorite that’s increasingly popular here. White asparagus are cultivated by mounding soil or sand around stalks as they grow to block the light, which prevents them from turning green. The resulting spears are milder, nuttier and less fibrous than green asparagus, though they also tend to be less tender and lower in nutrients.
When it comes to asparagus size, age is key: The older the plant, the thicker the stalk. White or green, thick or thin, asparagus work best in recipes that allow their distinctive flavor to shine.
Even though fresh asparagus can now almost always be found year-round, spring is still the tastiest (and least expensive) season to buy the spears. Coming up, delicious ways to make the most of this warm-weather bounty.
ASPARAGUS SCONES Makes 15 scones, serving size is 1 scone 30 minutes or fewer
Whether you whip up a batch for brunch or serve them for afternoon tea, these flavorful scones are a great way to use leftover steamed asparagus spears that are a little too limp to serve a second time. Feel free to replace the cheddar with your favorite grate-able cheese such as Gruyère, Parmesan or smoked mozzarella.
3⁄4 lb. steamed asparagus
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 Tbs. granulated sugar
1 Tbs. baking powder
1⁄2 tsp. salt
4 Tbs. unsalted butter, margarine or shortening
3⁄4 cup plus 2 Tbs. buttermilk or soymilk
1 cup grated cheddar cheese or soy cheddar cheese
1⁄2 tsp. cayenne pepper
1⁄4 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
Preheat oven to 425F.
Trim tips from asparagus, and chop stalks into 1⁄4-inch pieces. Stir together flour, sugar, baking powder and salt in large bowl. Cut butter into small pieces. Using fingers, rub butter into flour mixture until mixture resembles coarse meal. Stir in 3⁄4 cup buttermilk. Fold in cheese, asparagus pieces (but not tips), cayenne and pepper.
Turn dough onto floured work surface, and knead 6 or 7 times. Shape dough into 1⁄2-inch-thick rectangle. Using sharp knife, cut rectangle lengthwise into three strips. Cut each strip into triangles. Place triangles on greased baking sheet. Brush scones with remaining buttermilk, then press 2 or 3 asparagus tips into tops.
Bake 12 to 15 minutes, or until tops are golden brown.
PER SERVING: 130 CAL; 4G PROT; 5G TOTAL FAT (3.5G SAT. FAT); 15G CARB; 15MG CHOL; 240MG SOD;
MUSHROOM-ASPARAGUS RISOTTO Serves 6
This Italian classic is perfect for those coolish nights when you want something warm that still has a taste of spring.
2 Tbs. olive oil
1 onion, finely diced
2 cups sliced mushrooms
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 1⁄2 cups Arborio rice
3⁄4 tsp. salt
1⁄4 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
4 1⁄2 cups vegetable stock
1 lb. asparagus, trimmed and cut diagonally into 1-inch pieces
1⁄2 cup grated Parmesan or Romano cheese
1 Tbs. fresh lemon zest
Heat oil in large saucepan over medium heat. Add onion, and sauté 3 minutes, or until softened. Add mushrooms and garlic; cook 5 minutes more, or until mushrooms are browned and their juice has evaporated. Stir in rice, salt and pepper, and cook 1 minute.
Add 1 cup stock to saucepan, and cook, stirring constantly, about 3 minutes, or until it’s mostly absorbed. Stir in another cup stock, and cook, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking, until liquid is absorbed. Repeat until you have 1⁄2 cup stock left. Add asparagus and last 1⁄2 cup of stock; cook 4 minutes more, or until stock is absorbed and asparagus is tender. Fold in cheese and lemon zest. Serve immediately.
Fresh mint, feta cheese and orange slices give this salad a light, refreshing tang. Steamed green beans, sugar snap peas or broccoli florets would also work well in place of the asparagus.
1 lb. asparagus, trimmed
3 large navel oranges
8 oz. campanelle pasta or other
medium-sized pasta shape, cooked, rinsed and drained
1 cup chopped scallions
1⁄3 cup chopped fresh mint
1 Tbs. white wine or cider vinegar
2 Tbs. olive oil
1 tsp. salt
1⁄2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
1⁄3 cup crumbled feta cheese
Bring large pot of water to a rolling boil. Drop asparagus in water, return to a boil and remove from heat. Let asparagus stand in water 1 minute, then drain and rinse under cold water. Cut asparagus on diagonal into 1-inch pieces.
Meanwhile, remove 4 Tbs. zest from oranges. Put 2 Tbs. zest in large bowl with asparagus, pasta, scallions and chopped mint. Toss well.
Juice one navel orange. Whisk together remaining 2 Tbs. zest, 2 Tbs. orange juice, vinegar, oil, salt and pepper in small bowl. Stir dressing into pasta-asparagus mixture.
Cut ends from remaining two oranges. Stand one orange on cutting board, and, using sharp paring knife, cut away pith from sides. Halve orange lengthwise, and lay two pieces on cutting board; cut each half in half. Slice 1⁄4-inch-thick fans from each orange piece. Repeat with second orange, and add fans and feta cheese to pasta mixture. Gently toss to combine. Chill one hour, or overnight. Retoss before serving.
Vichyssoise is a cold leek-and-potato soup served with chopped chives. The fresh chives add a subtle flavor that perfectly showcases the distinctive taste of asparagus.
1 Tbs. canola oil
1 leek, white part only, cleaned and chopped
1⁄4 cup white wine
1 large russet potato, chopped
1 lb. asparagus, trimmed and cut into 1-inch pieces with tips reserved
4 cups water
2 fresh thyme sprigs
2 fresh parsley sprigs
3⁄4 tsp. salt
1⁄8 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
1⁄4 cup chopped fresh chives for garnish
Heat oil over medium heat in large saucepan. Add leeks, cover and cook 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, or until softened. Stir in wine, and cook 2 minutes more, or until most liquid has evaporated.
Add chopped potato, asparagus pieces (but not tips), water, thyme and parsley sprigs, salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, and cook 30 minutes over medium-low heat, or until potatoes are tender. Remove thyme and parsley sprigs; pour soup in batches into food processor, and purée to a creamy consistency (or use an immersion blender, and purée in pot). Chill well.
Bring pot of lightly salted water to a boil. Drop in asparagus tips, remove from heat and let stand 1 minute. Drain, and rinse under cold water. Ladle soup into bowls, and divide asparagus tips among them. Sprinkle with fresh chives, and serve.
The secret to this flavorful sandwich is the special sauce made of toasted almonds, roasted garlic and some of the asparagus. And our roasting method allows you to cook the garlic in only 20 minutes (not an hour) and even in a toaster-oven. Note: A small head of garlic yields about 2 Tbs. roasted garlic.
2 small heads garlic
1 1⁄2 lb. asparagus, trimmed
3 Tbs. olive oil
1⁄2 tsp. salt
1⁄2 cup slivered almonds, toasted
2 Tbs. fresh lemon juice
6 slices pumpernickel bread
1 1⁄2 cups grated cheddar cheese
Preheat oven to 350F.
Separate garlic cloves, and place on baking sheet. Roast 20 minutes, or until skins begin to brown and garlic turns soft. Cool, then squeeze garlic from skin of each clove. Increase oven temperature to 450F.
Toss asparagus in 1 Tbs. oil, and sprinkle with 1⁄4 tsp. salt. Place in single layer on baking sheet, and roast 4 to 8 minutes, or until crisp-tender. Cool. Trim ends so asparagus are same length as width of bread, and reserve ends.
Put 1⁄4 cup almonds in food processor or blender, and chop fine. Add roasted garlic, reserved asparagus ends, lemon juice, remaining oil and remaining 1⁄4 tsp. salt, and purée until smooth.
Place bread slices on baking sheet. Spread each slice with 2 Tbs. puréed almond mixture. Lay 4 or 5 asparagus spears on each bread slice, and top with 1⁄4 cup cheese. Broil sandwiches about 3 minutes, or until cheese has melted. Sprinkle sandwiches with remaining almonds.
Joyce Dodson Piotrowski was the chef ⁄owner of The Armadilla Grill in Chantilly, VA, and Bethesda, MD. She has also taught French and Chinese cooking at L’Academie de Cuisine in Maryland.
After testing the recipes for this story, Mary Margaret Chappell swore she wouldn’t eat another asparagus spear for a year. It is testimony to the veggie’s unique appeal that just two days later, she ordered vegfriendly Asparagus Eggs Benedict while having brunch with friends and loved every bite.