Photo by Stephanie Studer on Unsplash
There’s nothing like the fresh taste of spring in the year’s first crops. Each year in Ontario, fresh asparagus is for sale at farms in Barrie in May and June, and for a few short weeks, it is at its most delicious. It’s the official kick-off to spring’s first farm fresh produce. Here is how to pick, prepare and enjoy your asparagus.
Pick of the Crop: Choosing the Best Spears
When shopping for your asparagus, it’s important to engage your senses. Look for brightly coloured stalks in vibrant green, sometimes with violet tips. These tips should be fully closed and compact. Squeeze the asparagus. It should feel firm to the touch and ‘squeak’. Finally, your asparagus should smell fresh. If the spears have lost their colour, smell or firmness, you should take a pass, as it may not be fresh enough.
Fresh, Frozen or Canned: How to best Enjoy Asparagus
For just a few short weeks every year, Ontarians can enjoy fresh asparagus for sale just a few kilometres from home. The rest of the year, you’ll have to resort to imported, frozen or canned spears. Canning is a process that can leach important nutrients and often includes added salt, so it’s not the healthiest option. Frozen asparagus is usually compromised in texture, and while it may suit cooking in soups or stews, it’s not ideal for steaming. Imported asparagus is available throughout the year but tends to cost more and is less nutritious and enjoyable, thanks to the miles it travels.
Types of Asparagus
Asparagus in Ontario comes in two grades: #1 consists of straight, uniform spears with compact tips. Choose #1 asparagus if you are steaming it, as the uniform size allows it to cook evenly and taste incredible with just a dash of salt and a pat of butter.
#2 asparagus has all the same flavor and freshness, but the spears may vary a bit more in size, making it harder to cook together. This is a great option for grilling though, as you can pull the spears off the BBQ as they finish cooking.
Cleaning and Preparing Asparagus
Once you get your asparagus home, you’ll want to eat it within a few days to enjoy it the most. When it’s ready to eat, you’ll need to snap off the woody ends or cut them. Conventional wisdom is to snap the spears at their natural breaking point, but this can result in waste. Another way is to simply cut off approximately 1” of the bottom of the spear and use a vegetable peeler to remove additional woody parts.
To clean your asparagus spears, often a swish in a bowl of water or a cool rinse is enough, but to ensure there’s no stubborn grit, you can blanch them. To do this, simply use tongs to dip them in boiling water for a moment to release the dirt, and then run them under cold water. Once this is done, you can continue to prepare as you normally would.
Roasted Asparagus makes a delightfully easy accompaniment to a springtime dinner. To prepare, simply line a baking sheet with parchment or foil, drizzle with olive oil, sprinkle with fresh grated parmesan and cracked black pepper. Bake at 350 to desired done-ness, and depending on the thickness of your spears, approximately 20 minutes.
Asparagus in Stir Fry
Asparagus is a great addition to your favourite stir fry, or all on its own. To get tender-crisp spears, chop into thirds, so they can be easily moved about the pan. Heat oil in non-stick fry pan and add the spears, stirring often until they are lightly browned. Add a couple of tablespoons of water to finish with steam, and promptly remove when they are easily pierced with a fork.
Since it’s only springtime that fresh asparagus is for sale, you may want to preserve it for later. You’ll get the best results if you blanch it quickly before you freeze it. Blanching has the added benefit of cleaning, sealing in nutrients and preserving flavour and colour. Blanching is also particularly good for asparagus before you grill it on the BBQ. Just make sure it gets a cold bath immediately after to avoid over cooking.
For delicious grilled asparagus, simply baste your spears with olive oil and sprinkle with sea salt and fresh cracked pepper. You may wish to try blanching it prior to grilling as described above. To avoid charring, keep a close eye and keep your asparagus moving throughout cooking. Simply remove spears as they are done. You can garnish your grilled asparagus with fresh lemon wedges.
For best results, use uniform pieces to ensure even cooking throughout. The best steamed asparagus is still slightly crisp. It is easy to overcook, so use a timer and keep a close eye. Simply place spears in a steamer basket after water has come to a boil, and steam for a few minutes until desired done-ness. To complete your steamed asparagus, try melting some butter with minced garlic and a little lemon juice to taste.
In Ontario, we are so lucky to enjoy farm fresh produce so many months of the year. But because we know winter is just around the corner, we enjoy it that much more! Here is one final reason to love your asparagus: it is rich in vitamins and nutrients. It packs a powerful punch with vitamins A, C, E, K and B6, plus folate, iron, copper, calcium, protein and fibre.
Asparagus is for sale at farm markets across Ontario at the peak of freshness only from early May until the end of June, so be sure to get it while it’s good!