By MARY ANN LIENHART CROSS
Extension Educator Purdue Extension
GOSHEN — As I write this column, the weather has been wet, cold, and windy. I know many of you are finding sponge mushrooms. They are a sure sign of spring and rain. Regardless of the cooler weather, now is the time for fresh local asparagus. I have not only been surprised to find fresh asparagus in the grocery store already, but am amazed at its quality, flavor, and cost.
Southern Michigan along with New Jersey, California, and Washington are states known for growing asparagus. Asparagus prefers moisture and cool temperatures, which affects the length of the crop. You will find asparagus in grocery stores from February through June with the peak supply from April to June. Even in the fall and winter months, asparagus bought from a grocery store will still be very tasty though!
The asparagus plant is a member of the lily family. The part we enjoy eating is the edible slender shoot, which ranges from pencil thin to really thick. This year my crowns are producing thicker shoots. The asparagus that most people enjoy is green. The white asparagus is harvested when the tip just breaks the ground and then straw is used to cover the spears. The lack of exposure to the sun keeps the spear pale.
When selecting asparagus look for a fresh appearance, closed and compact tips, and smooth round spears. A rich green color should cover most of the spear. The stalks should be tender almost as far down as the green extends. Don’t select tips that are open, decayed, or ribbed (spears with up and down ridges). These are all signs of staleness and result in tough asparagus and poor flavor. Also, avoid excessively sandy asparagus, because sand grains can lodge beneath the scales or in the tips of the spears and are difficult to remove during rinsing.
I suggest you try fresh, raw asparagus in dips and cut up in salad. I know most of you eat asparagus grilled, roasted, or lightly steamed with a variety of seasoning or sauces. For raw eating, trim the ends, trim or remove the scales, rinse, and enjoy. It does have a different flavor when eaten raw. I often eat mine right when I am harvesting. No matter how it is prepared, fresh asparagus is nutritious. It contains carbohydrates, fiber, and starch which is an excellent source of vitamins and minerals.
When you are preparing asparagus, try your hand at breaking the spears where they snap easily. You can also use a small paring knife or vegetable peeler to remove the tough outer peel at the stem end. The tip and main part of the spear are tender and only require rinsing. Asparagus can be prepared whole or cut straight or diagonally in 1 or 2 inch pieces. When it comes to storage, wrap the cut ends in damp paper towels, cover with a plastic bag, and refrigerate up to one week. You can also refrigerate spears upright with the stem ends in water. Whichever way you eat it, now is the best time for locally grown asparagus.