Asparagus (Asperges)

What is the best way to prepare asparagus, how to trim and cook them and links to easy asparagus recipes. History, varieties, how to choose them at the market and odd facts including why urine smells after eating them.

crates of green and white asparagus at the market

In Season

Spring. Beginning March- end June

Random Facts

  • The Egyptians, Greeks and Romans already cultivated asparagus around the Mediterranean, and it has been documented in the oldest of cookbooks. However, it wasn’t until Louis XIV that it became popular in France in the 17th century – the King adored this most luxurious vegetable. His botanist, La Quintinie grew them at the Potager du Roi in Versailles as of December under shelter;
  • Asparagus grow in the earth and can grow as much as 15 centimetres in a day;
  • There are 3 varieties today: White (blanche), Purple (violette) and Green (verte).
    White are harvested as soon as they push out of the earth (cultivated mainly in Alsace). They have less flavour as a result.
    Purple are harvested after they push up a few centimetres from the earth (grown in Aquitaine, Charentes & the Loire). They’re much bigger than white, are juicy, and have tons of flavour.
    Green are picked after about 15 centimetres out of the ground (grown mainly in the Rhone and Loire) and have the most flavour.
  • How to choose the best at the market: the freshest asparagus should have firm heads – not wet, not dry, not wilted;
  • How to store: up to 3 days at the bottom of the fridge;
  • Health Benefits: according to Aprifel, they are high in Vitamin B9 and a good source of fibre;
  • Why does my urine smell after I eat them?  It’s a secret side-effect we don’t like to talk about but affects many of us (not all), as when some of us digest, the asparagusic acid releases sulphur compounds. Hence the smell – but there’s nothing wrong with this and natural.  We look at it as just a spring clean to the system!

peeling asparagus spears

How to Trim & Cook Asparagus

  • First  cutt off the bottom of the spear – a maximum of about 1/4 off, where the dry bit ends and the more juicy part looks evident. This is the part of asparagus you should not eat as it’s tough, woody and has no flavour;
  • Using a sharp knife or peeler, gently trim the pedoncules, the little triangles that stick out from the spears, leaving the ones intact at the top. This makes them easier to digest. Peel about half way up the spears, although it’s not totally necessary for extremely thin spears – green in particular. I find that white varieties need more peeling and trimming;
  • Asparagus spears can be eaten raw: peel thinly to produce shavings and add to a green salad;
  • Healthiest way to cook them: as asparagus mainly contains water, French food scientist Raphaël Haumont encourages us to cook them as much as possible in their own water to preserve their healthy vitamin and fibre content. So, contrary to popular belief (even amongst chefs) of cooking in a large pan of salted water – instead fry them in a little butter or olive oil and sauté gently with the lid on (to cook in their own steam) for only 4-8 minutes depending on their size. Add a little water if the asparagus are particularly thick so that they don’t dry out.

For a demonstration how to prepare them, see my step-by-step recipe video for Asparagus Clafoutis with parmesan sauce.

asparagus with flaked almonds in roasting tin

Baked or Roasted Asparagus

Baking or oven-roasting is the easiest and quickest way and one of the best ways to enjoy asparagus.
Simply trim them (as above) then place them in a roasting tin, dribbled with a little olive oil, salt, pepper and sprinkle on some slivered almonds or hazelnuts. Also delicious with each spear wrapped in thin slices of bacon.
Bake them in the oven at 200°C/180°C fan/400°F/Gas 6 for 10-15 minutes, depending on their size.

Sautéed (Pan-Fried) Asparagus

Trim the asparagus (as above) and fry over a medium heat with a couple of bacon rashers or simply with a little butter/olive oil for 4-8 minutes, depending on asparagus size. Season to taste and serve immediately.

Wild Asparagus (Asperge Sauvage)

Wild Asparagus, properly known as ornithogalum pyrencaicum (asperge des bois), is delicious served cold, tossed in salads and hot as a side to roast chicken, for example or to decorate tarts and pies. Its taste is more a cross between asparagus, French green beans and peas. Only needs brief cooking as the spears are so thin.  Boil briefly for a minute or two or sauté in butter or olive oil.

How to Serve

Delicious served with sauces such as Hollandaise, Béarnaise, Mayonnaise or Beurre Blanc. Ideal on its own or with salmon, chicken and fish. Fabulous with eggs: add to omelettes – and dip spears into a runny boiled egg. Divine!

Easy Asparagus Recipes

Vegetarian Savoury Recipes

From the kitchen