Fresh Ideas: Asparagus

Last Saturday, I had the pleasure of joining the Crescent City Farmers Market folks in New Orleans for a cooking demonstration using spring produce. Unlike the Red Stick Farmers Market, Crescent City’s market is less of a leisurely stroll down Main Street and more of a busy, square parking lot stuffed full of people and food.

Although we may not have vendors selling rare finds like avocado popsicles, both the Baton Rouge and New Orleans Saturday markets are blessed with local farms specializing in seasonal produce: Ponchatoula strawberries are a must this time of year, and my favorite — sweet spring peas and stalks of asparagus.

While there are a variety of ways to cook asparagus (I prefer roasted or grilled), properly preparing the vegetable is just as important. Unlike most greens that just require a good scrub, asparagus demands one extra step: dealing with those woody ends.

If you’ve ever made the mistake of forgetting to trim your asparagus before cooking, you’ll easily remember a few chewy, uncomfortable bites toward the end of the spear. No matter how fresh, asparagus will always be a little dry and dehydrated at the bottom, making it highly unpleasant to eat.

Since I first began cooking asparagus, I’ve always been taught to “snap” off the woody ends. Simply hold the stalk between two hands, gripping the dry, woody end tightly in one hand. Then, flex the stalk backward and the woody end “snaps” right off.

Although this tip is easy (and fun, especially when cooking with children), it wastes a significant amount of good-for-you greens, sometimes even reducing the stalk by more than a third.

Fortunately, there are other solutions.

Lately, I’ve been “shaving” the ends. Trim the bottom of the stalk ½ inch up and using a sharp peeler, shave down the pale, tough end that’s left behind. You’ll waste less of the stalk and remove unnecessary toughness before cooking.

To make the most of spring asparagus, here are some other common problems, tips and tricks:

  • Limp, lifeless asparagus? Try rehydrating the stalk. Cutting at an angle, trim the stalk ½ inch up from the woody end. Wash stalks thoroughly and place upright in a vase filled with room-temperature water (as with flowers). Check back in an hour, and your greens will be brought back to life.
  • Avoid dehydration. When you get home, wash the stalks (or give them a good soak), removing any strings or bands. Wrap and store asparagus in a moist paper towel to prevent drying out.
  • Recycle stems. If you do choose to “snap” the stalk, there’s an easy way to put leftovers to good use: vegetable broth.

Combine asparagus pieces with fresh herbs, salt, pepper and your choice of chopped carrots, celery and onions.

Simmer in just enough water for the vegetables to “float” on medium-low heat for up to an hour. Reserve and refrigerate the leftover broth for soups and vegetarian dishes.

  • Size matters, As tempting as it is to buy delicate, thin asparagus, the thicker the stalk, the better your results.

As always, make sure to buy shiny spears with thick flowering tips (loose tips indicate a lack of freshness) and introduce them to some other spring vegetables like sweet peas and shallots.

Helana Brigman is a food writer, photographer and cookbook author. She can be reached with daily recipes at http://clearlydeliciousfoodblog.com or via email at hbrigm1@tigers.lsu.edu.