With asparagus as plentiful as it is right now, there are a few things that are helpful to know about buying and cooking it.
First, asparagus comes in three colors: white, purple and green.
White asparagus is cultivated in mulch. Because they are always from mature root stock, the spears are very thick. And because the spears are cut soon after they emerge into sunlight, they are squat. They are also very woody and always require peeling.
Because the plant uses its sugar store to develop its outer woody surface, white asparagus can be a tad bitter, but in an agreeable way. And because it's not grown in sunlight, it lacks the chlorophyll flavor that the green variety has, also contributing to the bitter taste.
Cook white asparagus in boiling salted water 8 to 10 minutes or until completely tender. White asparagus is sturdier than the others and that point of cooking perfection between crisp and overcooked is more forgiving. To me, the texture of white asparagus is as robust as that of a piece of meat.
Purple asparagus is white asparagus that is left to grow a bit taller in the light, but not long enough for the chlorophyll to turn the stalks green. It lacks both the charming bitter edge of white and the sweetness of green. It, too, requires peeling but is generally less thick than white.
Green asparagus is, in my opinion, the best. It has a nice balance between sweetness and bitterness and has a strong flavor.
Pencil-thin stalks of asparagus are tender and don't require peeling or preliminary blanching. They also have little flavor and are nice to throw into vegetable ragouts or to garnish fish, poultry and white meats. They're good cut up and stir-fried. They're cute but not serious. What else can you say? Simply trim the bottom inch of the stalk and blanch 1 1/2 to 2 minutes in salted boiling water.
Medium stalks are sweet, but don't have what I describe as a strong essence-of-asparagus flavor, that flavor between the astringency of an artichoke and the sulfuric odor of overcooked broccoli. The peel is not unpleasantly stringy, but peeling removes any bitterness and results in sweeter, fresher-tasting stalks.
The best way of knowing where to trim is to snap each stalk individually. The stalk should snap at the point where it becomes tender. If you're not inclined to snap each one, then do 3 or 4. Assume that all the stalks are about the same degree of woodiness and trim the rest of the stalks with a knife. Boil in copious amounts of salted water 5 to 7 minutes.
Jumbo green asparagus are the best of all, the king of vegetables. Their store of sugar has been used to develop the stringy, not woody, outer skin, and its green chlorophyll flavor has developed. The texture is tender yet meaty.
Cook jumbo asparagus until tender but not mushy, about 8 to 10 minutes. Here you need to be more accurate than when cooking white asparagus. You want tender spears, neither crisp nor mushy.
In order to avoid overcooking the tender asparagus tips, some people tie asparagus into bundles and stand them in water in specially designed asparagus cookers. I find that it's more important to cook asparagus in a larger quantity of water than is possible using an asparagus cooker. If carefully handled, the tips shouldn't get damaged, even when submerged in a large pot.
I prefer eating my asparagus simply with a little lemon and butter or with a drizzle of mustardy vinaigrette. Use the jumbo variety to make a wonderful soup.
Here's where the rule "freshest is best" doesn't apply. I prefer to use asparagus that is a bit old, that has been in the market a bit too long, to make soup. It has a stronger flavor.
I've even developed a way of cooking asparagus that nearly reminds me of the canned variety that hooked me as a child. Actually, it's a lot better. Place the asparagus in a skillet with some water and salt and cook it until the water is nearly evaporated. Whisk in a nut of butter and serve the asparagus in its own juices.
ASPARAGUS ON FRESH CROUTONS
1 pound medium or large asparagus
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup water
1 tablespoon butter
12 thin rounds French-style baguette
Peel asparagus spears and cut off and discard bottom inch.
Combine salt and water in nonreactive skillet. Cover and place over high heat. Bring to boil. Add asparagus and cook, gently shaking pan, until water is reduced to about 3 tablespoons, about 5 minutes. Stir in butter.
Arrange sliced bread on serving platter. Arrange asparagus on bread. Pour liquid over top and serve immediately.
4 servings. Each serving:
152 calories; 824 mg sodium; 9 mg cholesterol; 4 grams fat; 24 grams carbohydrates; 7 grams protein; 1.01 grams fiber.
ASPARAGUS WITH BALSAMIC BUTTER
1 pound medium or large asparagus
2 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons finely minced shallots or onions
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar