Sure, asparagus has undeniable culinary allure, but almost equally captivating is the way that it grows. From its crown, a spear can grow up to ten inches in one day, which means that you could actually sit and watch your asparagus grow. After harvest, asparagus plants sprout ferns that produce berries (they’re not edible), securing the nutrients necessary to grow more spears the next season. Meanwhile, the roots spread underground via rhizomes. While it typically takes a few years from planting to establish a strong crop, once it gets going, a well-tended asparagus bed might just continue to yield a harvest for 15 years without needing to be replanted.

The name asparagus comes from the Greek word for stalk or shoot — asparagos. It was the Greeks who first cultivated asparagus (and relied on it to cure toothaches and prevent bee stings) about 2,500 years ago.

Asparagus is a top-notch supplier of folic acid and a good source of vitamins C and A, potassium, fiber, vitamin B6, and thiamin — pretty great for a low-calorie, fat-free, cholesterol-free treat.
There are about 300 varieties of asparagus, though only about 20 of them are edible. The ones you’ll most likely run across in the produce aisle are Jersey King, Jersey Giant, and Jersey Knight. These are green varieties, but you can also find purple and white varieties. The white, which is more delicate and tender than the green, requires mounding earth over it as it grows, thus hindering its chlorophyll content. Purple asparagus is small, just two to three inches tall, and has a subtle, fruity flavor.

While asparagus originated in the Mediterranean, today it’s grown in most subtropical and temperate areas of the world. The largest producers are China, Peru, and Germany. In the United States, the leading producers are California, Washington, and Michigan.

Though distinctive, asparagus is a versatile vegetable. It can be steamed, stir-fried (along with other colorful vegetables), baked, roasted, or grilled. It shines as an appetizer (just serve with a dipping sauce like aioli, or along with other veggies, meats, and cheese, or atop crackers spread with a soft cheese). Use it as a garnish, as a side dish (drizzled with fresh lemon or a mustard vinaigrette), in tofu dishes, or with pasta. Asparagus has a real affinity for eggs, too. It also makes a lovely creamed soup.

Asparagus pairs well with other vegetables, like mushrooms, cherry tomatoes, scallions, and carrots. In the meat department, it complements bacon, ham, prosciutto, fish, seafood, and chicken. In the cheese aisle, pair it with a fontina, Parmesan, Gruyère, or brie. Pasta, rice, and farro are enhanced with a side (or topping) of asparagus. And for seasoning, think garlic, tarragon, ginger, dill, and chives.

A harbinger of spring, fresh asparagus shows up from April through early June. Look for firm, rounded, odorless, bright green spears with compact, uniform tips. Avoid limp stalks. You might want to choose uniform stalks, so they’ll cook at the same rate. Though the spears do come in different thicknesses, the size of the spear makes no difference in quality (both thick and thin are tender and delicious). Thick spears are great for grilling or roasting, while thinner spears are perfect for stir-fries and frittatas.

It’s okay if there’s a little woodiness at the base of the asparagus stalk—this helps keep the stalk from drying out. Just snap off this white, woody portion before cooking.

Once home, store your asparagus away from light (which destroys the folic acid content). Wrap the ends in a moist paper towel, or stand the spears upright in a glass or container with a couple of inches of water. Then place in the refrigerator and use within two or three days.

The arrival of asparagus—in your own garden or at your local co-op or farmers market—is truly cause for celebration. Welcome spring! Welcome asparagus!

Reprinted by permission from StrongerTogether.coop. Find articles about your food and where it comes from, recipes, and a whole lot more at www.strongertogether.coop.