California grass is here! Fat or slender, steamed or roasted, even deep-fried: it's just a week until the official beginning of spring, and that means, after a long winter of kale, kale, collards, and kale, beautiful asparagus--called 'grass' in the produce biz--is reappearing this month, right alongside the daffodils, tulips, and magnolia blossoms brightening every front yard.
Asparagus, you might be surprised to find out, used to be considered a member of the lily family (Liliaceae), which also included onions, garlic, leeks and the rest of the edible and ornamental alliums. But the botanical powers that be have since split that family, making a separate Asparagaceae genus of some 300 mostly ornamental species. However, unless you have a botany geek among your midst, it's still fun to amaze your friends with your mastery of obscure plant facts by mentioning the asparagus-lily connection, should conversation around the buffet need a goose.
What's really interesting, however, is how asparagus grows. It's a perennial plant, for starters, growing from a tangled, ring-like "crown" planted some six to eight inches below the surface of the soil. Once an asparagus patch is well established (it generally takes about 3 years to become fully productive), it can last for decades. The asparagus spears work like bulbs--in the same way that tulips and daffodils push up their stems and leaves from their storehouse underground, so an asparagus patch can be bare dirt one day and a forest of insouciant little tips the next. The spears come up in leaps and bounds, an inch one morning and practically full-size the next.
Some commercial asparagus growers have to harvest their fields several times a day to keep a consistent size and shape. The spears come up without distraction--no leaves, no flowers, no frills. Once they're long enough to harvest, out come the knives, cutting them off just below soil level. Like peas, asparagus are most tender and succulent straight out of the garden, which makes them worth seeking out straight from the farmer rather than at the supermarket.
The stalks should be turgid and smooth, not flaccid, pithy, or ridged. The tiny leaves should still be tight against the stalk, and the tips should be firm, the leaf tips closed with no sign of rot or sliminess at the top. The best way to judge freshness is to look at the base: really fresh asparagus will look moist, almost translucent. A day later, it's chalky; after that, it's solid white, with woodiness moving up the stalk.