Signalling spring is here, asparagus sprouts from the ground from September each year. The part we eat is the young shoots of the asparagus plant which, if left to grow, become a giant, feathery fern-like plant that dies back in autumn.
Harvesting asparagus is labour intensive, with the spears being cut by hand, usually in the cool of the night and early morning to retain maximum freshness.
Originating in the eastern Mediterranean region, asparagus was a favourite of the Greeks and Romans who also used it as a medicine. Today, it is still considered an aphrodisiac.
New Zealand grows around 1,800 tonnes of asparagus a year with 95% of this being consumed domestically.
The delicious herbaceous flavour and distinctive shape of asparagus add something special to dishes across the menu from soup to risotto to salad. While traditionally blanched or steamed, asparagus is fantastic chargrilled, also lovely raw, thinly shaved or finely diced.
Asparagus pairs well with egg, butter and cheese. It also works very well with lemon, sharp vinaigrettes, anchovies, bacon, ham, tarragon, dill, and seafood, especially crab, scallops and prawns
Don’t discard those woody ends when you prep, add these to stocks or freeze to make an asparagus soup next autumn or winter.
TIP – A pinch of baking soda in the water when boiling asparagus will keep the stalks greener.
Green asparagus is the most popular variety in New Zealand. It derives its colour from the process of photosynthesis as the spear emerges from the soil into direct sunlight. At the start of the season, or the first pick, asparagus is ungraded and a variety of shapes and sizes. Once the season is in full swing, graded asparagus is available with a choice of thick, medium or thin spears.
Thick spears can be just as luscious and tender as their thinner counterparts but are perfect for oven roasting and the BBQ, while the thin variety are perfect eaten raw or sautéed quickly.
Purple asparagus has sweeter, thicker spears than green. Due to their lower fibre content, they are also more tender. While green asparagus are quite herbaceous in flavour, purple is fruitier. Their vibrant colour is due to anthocyanins (potent antioxidants), which are the same naturally occurring pigments that give blueberries their purplish-blue colour. To make the most of the purple colour cook sparingly, or better still, use raw.
White asparagus has long been considered a delicacy in Europe. To produce white spears, asparagus needs to be grown in the dark. The added effort to do so means white asparagus is more expensive to grow and there is limited supply. White asparagus spears are usually thicker than green asparagus and have a thicker outer layer – simply use a vegetable peeler to remove this layer and ensure you serve tender asparagus.
Avoid a hangover and eat asparagus – the minerals and amino acids in asparagus protect the liver from toxins plus their enzymes help break down the alcohol and thus alleviate a hangover.
The main growing regions are Waikato, Canterbury, southwest North Island and Hawke’s Bay.
Look for firm, bright, smooth spears of uniform size with closed, compact tips. When you snap freshly harvested asparagus, it should be crisp and moist.
Asparagus is very similar to cut flowers in that it will have the longest life in cool, humid conditions.
Wrap spears in a damp tea towel, store in the chiller inside a plastic bag away from the airflow. Or stand the fresh spears upright in a container with 1cm cold water, cover and store in the chiller between 0°C–2°C.