In conversation with Raf Epstein, ABC Radio Drive, 26 Sep 2017
Alice’s asparagus tips (and spears)
Seasonality: Nothing screams “SPRING!” like asparagus, especially in Victoria, which is home to over 90% of Australia’s spear stores (the storage kind, not the selling kind).
What to look for: Asparagus season coincides with that perfect pairing of just enough rain and a sprinkling of sun, which is why the best looking asparagus is firm to touch, crisp to snap, and bright green (from all that photosynthesising). I judge my spears by their tips – buds should be tight and vibrant, with not a droop or gloop in sight. The woodier the ends, the longer your asparagus has been out of the ground (which means less nutrient value and less flavour!) so look for brighter ends that don’t look too parchy – clever greengrocers will even store their spears in iced boxes to retain maximum crunch.
Varieties to look out for: your bog-standard spears are traditionally green and the girth of a pencil, but there are plenty of other variations on this theme. Look for sweet and crunchy, thicker spears early in the season, which can be tossed through salads raw. White asparagus, which has a much milder flavour, is prized by chefs for its unusual appearance and tenderness – cultivated by growing it in the dark! If you find yourself in the company of purple asparagus, get amongst it! The rarest of the bunch, this one is highest in antioxidants and tends to be sweeter in flavour.
How to store: If you’re hoping to hold onto those spears until the end of the week or beyond, especially if you plan on serving it raw, store like herbs or a bunch of flowers. Trim off the very end of the tips (keep the ‘snapping’ until you’re just about to cook) and store upright in a jar of water, with a plastic bag or damp paper towel over the tips. Otherwise, the crisper drawer is quite alright.
How to cook: When serving asparagus, the less you do to it, the better. In fact, early harvest asparagus is incredibly delicious sliced raw through salads – with a taste similar to fresh snow peas. The stems are so tender that you don’t even need to get rid of the stringy last bit. But you’ll have to be quick with these – they’re only around the market for the next few weeks. If you’re going to cook your spears, a simple blanch in boiling well-salted water until bright green (about 1-2 minutes depending on thickness) is all they need. Normally, you’d finish such an endeavor by dunking the spears in iced water, but this means you can lose much of the heat. Instead, I blanch the asparagus to just before perfect, and let the residual heat cook it through – kind of like seafood. Toss your blanched asparagus through butter or olive oil, season well with salt flakes and serve with whatever else you’ve got planned – be it poached eggs for breakfast, as part of a vego salad spread at lunch, or a roast chook for dinner. The best part about this versatile veg is that it really does lend itself to everything else on the table.
Complementary pairings: Butter, Cheese (especially fresh cheese like goat’s or ricotta, and parmesan), Cured meats, Eggs, Lemon, Olive oil, Pepper.
© 2017 Alice Zaslavsky