Among the produce market's tastiest harbingers of spring, asparagus is most delicious in its true season, although very good fresh asparagus is available all year long. These tall, crisp-tender spears can be pencil-thin or as thick as a man's thumb. Thin spears and thick each have their devoted followers.
Steam or boil fresh spears vertically in an asparagus steamer or horizontally in a large fry pan (not a crowded saucepan) and serve hot, topped with melted butter and a squeeze of lemon juice, or cold, dressed with vinaigrette. Asparagus is heavenly when coated with olive oil and roasted in the oven or grilled. Slender spears are good sautéed in a bit of olive oil or butter and tossed with pasta; stockier spears are great additions to soups and stews. Canned and frozen are also available but are generally considered inferior to fresh asparagus.
Canned white asparagus from Spain, particularly from Navarre, is full flavored and tender, ideal for serving with a vinaigrette made from Spanish olive oil and sherry vinegar. In some people's opinion, these tinned Iberian spears rival the best fresh asparagus.
Look for firm stalks and tight, dry and often purple-tinged tips, avoiding those that are moist looking. The cut end should look freshly cut and not too dried out. If there is slight spreading at the top, the spears are still good. The length of the stalk should be all or mostly green. The white at the bottom should be discarded before cooking.
Most asparagus sold in the United States is green, but white asparagus, beloved in Europe, is becoming increasingly popular. It is the same vegetable, but is given an exotic look and more delicate flavor by keeping the growing spears carefully covered with soil so only the tips emerge. This prevents sunlight from reaching the shoots and developing their chlorophyll. A purple variety of asparagus, which turns green when cooked, tends to be a little sweeter than regular asparagus.
Cook asparagus as soon as possible after purchase. If you must store it, cut off an inch or so of the stalk at the base, set the bunch in a shallow pan of water and refrigerate for up to 4 days.
Adapted from Williams-Sonoma Kitchen Companion (Time-Life Books, 2000).