Asparagus season lasts for approximately 100 days. Seasonal variations occur, with most produce harvested in April and May ending mid-season in June. Although you may be able to find asparagus at the market other times of the year, eating asparagus in season comes with a lot of benefits. The sweet, grassy taste, bright clean flavor and health benefits of fresh asparagus are at their best this time of the year. When stored commercially for longer periods of time, asparagus loses most of its flavor and nutrients. It becomes less healthy and wrinkles.
Italians know the best way to eat is to eat seasonally with recipes that follow the ingredients when they are at their peak. In spring, together with peas, artichokes and squash blossoms asparagus rises to the occasion in a variety of dishes that shout "Spring has arrived". Asparagus comes from from the Greek word aspharagos derived from asparag, meaning "sprout; as in the sprout of a plant. Horticulturalists tell us that if it is not picked promptly the tips of the spears start to loosen and fiber begins to develop at the base of the spears, causing them to become tough. So its important to enjoy asparagus while you can.
In April and May visitors from across Italy come to the Northern Italian river town of Bassano del Grappa to sample the delicate white asparagus of the Veneto. It is the "IT" seasonal vegetable of Italy this time of the year. Grown entirely underground, it is so precious and legendary that it has been granted PDO (protected designation of origin) status by the Italian government.
Described by Lidia Bastianich as the “epitome of seasonal food” it is so unique that when marketed the bundles of asparagus are tied with a willow string, banded and marked with the name and surname of the producer and the locality where it was produced.
More delicate than green, sweeter and slightly bitter, Bassano's white asparagus has a cult following that draws food enthusiasts to weekend festivals throughout the season. Local restaurateurs vie for the most imaginative use of Bassano’s “white gold” with newly created dishes showcased on their spring menus. Typically served ovi e sparasi, with soft-boiled eggs and a dipping sauce of extra virgin olive oil, vinegar, salt and pepper or asparagi alla parmigiana (blanched asparagus topped with melted butter and grated parmigiano) and are best served simply.
There is also a purple variety, Violetto d’Albenga, from the town of Albenga on the Gulf of Genoa in the province of Savona It has an intense purple color and like white asparagus, purple asparagus is milder in flavor and sweeter than green asparagus.
The following recipes for your spring table feature the green variety which are more common in the States but can be made with other varieties of asparagus if they can be found.
Grilled Asparagus with Balsamic Butter
1 bunch (about 1 pound) fresh asparagus, trimmed
a good quality Extra Virgin Olive Oil like Capezzana
1/4 cup unsalted butter (1/2 stick)
1 tablespoon Maletti Aged Balsamic Vinegar
Coarse sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Toast the asparagus in the olive oil with a few pinches of coarse sea salt . Cook on a pre-heated grill for 6 minutes or until tender and browned. Remove and keep warm. Melt butter in a small saucepan over low heat. Stir in the balsamic vinegar until smooth. Arrange grilled asparagus on a serving plate, and spoon the balsamic butter over top and finish with fresh ground pepper. Serve immediately.
Pasta with Asparagus
11-12 oz fusilli pasta or spaghetti
14 oz fresh asparagus washed
1 onion peeled and finely chopped
1-2 garlic cloves peeled and minced
1 handful fresh parsley chopped
1 medium zucchini cut into small cubes
7 oz robiola cheese or cream cheese
2 oz grated Parmigiano Reggiano
salt for pasta/asparagus and to taste
coarse ground black pepper to taste
4 tbsp quality extra virgin olive oil like Capezzana
Wash the asparagus and break off the hardest part of the stalks. Heat the olive oil in a large skillet. Add the onion and garlic and soften for 5 minutes. Add the zucchini to the garlic and onion with a pinch of salt. Mix and then cook covered over a moderate flame for 10 minutes, stirring until vegetables are golden and tender.
Cook the asparagus in salted water for about 10 minutes until al dente but still firm. Drain, retaining the cooking water. Cut the asparagus stalks into cubes, setting the spears aside. Blend the asparagus stalks with a little of the cooking water in a food processor or blender. Put the blended asparagus in a bowl. Add the mixture of zucchini, onion and garlic. Mix the 2 together and return the blended sauce to the skillet. Add the robiola cheese, half of the Parmigiano and half of the parsley. Mix everything together on a low heat until the robiola has melted. Add salt and pepper to taste and some of the asparagus spears.
Cook the pasta until al dente according to package instructions. Drain the pasta retaining some of the cooking water. Add the pasta to the asparagus sauce with a few tablespoons of the pasta cooking water to make the sauce more creamy. Mix the pasta and sauce together well and serve with the remaining asparagus spears, more grated cheese, black pepper and a sprinkling of remaining chopped parsley.
Note: Because it’s a sprout, the asparagus tends to lose soon its characteristics once it is cut much like cut flowers. A good trick to avoid this is to put the asparaguses in a vase-like container with a little water, just like you would do with flowers.
Before cooking peel the base with a potato peeler o soften the base. The asparagus will cook faster without loosing its flavor and health benefits, becoming tender and delicious when served.