Can it be mere coincidence that March heralds the arrival of both my birthday and the first California asparagus? I think not. As Einstein said, God doesn't play dice with the universe.
And while I no longer am filled with the same childlike excitement about each approaching birthday, I do feel that way -- or maybe stronger -- about the start of asparagus season.
For the last couple weeks, I've been stopping by the Zuckerman's Farm stand at my Long Beach farmers market asking when the jumbos will be arriving. Maybe this weekend? Certainly next.
With great asparagus like this – big around as your thumb, available only for about a month ever year – the simplest cooking is best. I buy a pound a person, steam them just until they sag when lifted – they'll be on the edge of mousse-y with almost no crispness left, and with a profound clean fresh asparagus flavor – and then dress them with good olive oil, lemon juice and coarse salt. Toss in a loaf of good bread and a bottle of Navarro Gewurztraminer and you've got a feast to remember.
After that, how I prepare asparagus depends on the type of spears. For really thick ones, I stay pretty close to that model. It just can't be improved upon.
I'll use wiry thin spears as an ingredient in other dishes – risotto, pasta, frittatas. Spears in the middle can go either way.
When it comes to peeling, it's absolutely necessary for the thick spears (but here's a hint: Rather than cut off the bases, just peel more deeply). You don't need to peel at all for the thin spears. And I'll leave it to your judgment for those in the middle.
How to choose: The first thing to look at is the tips – remember that asparagus is a fern that will unfurl if left too long, so you want those tips to be as tightly closed as possible. This is also the first place that asparagus will start to show signs of spoilage; there should be no soft spots. Next check the length of the spear; asparagus will start to wrinkle along the sides if it's been too long out of water. Finally, check the base to make sure it is still moist. Good vendors will usually store asparagus standing upright in a tray of water or on top of a moist towel to better preserve them.
How to store: Take a tip from the stores: Stand the asparagus upright in a large glass or tray with water in it and then place a plastic bag over the tips. Asparagus will last several days in the refrigerator this way.