Asparagus has always been a harbinger of spring in the garden, a bright, grassy foretaste of the summer produce to come. The emerald green spears may be available in the market nearly year-round now — most come from Peru — but they're still at their sweetest and most succulent in the early months of the year, when they're grown and harvested in California.
Right now, most of the fresh asparagus in supermarkets comes from the delta near Stockton. With about 12,000 acres in production, the delta is the largest growing region in the nation.
The perennial plant, a member of the lily family, needs very little preparation to shine at the height of the season. It's even great raw. It's crunchy, sweet and faintly herbal.
In the perpetual debate over which is better, thick stalks or thin, grower Linda Butler comes down firmly on the side of chubby asparagus, pointing out that fatter spears come from younger plants.
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"The skinny ones are not the best," she insists. "All the sweetness is in the fat ones. I would choose the fattest ones you can get."
Butler, who grows organically at Lindencroft Farm in Ben Lomond, also rejects the advice of many cookbooks to peel the thick spears before cooking. Not only is peeling unnecessary, if the asparagus is really fresh, she contends, it also removes nutrients.
On one point, though, savvy cooks agree: The time for asparagus is now. By June, the only thing left in Butler's asparagus beds will be the feathery fronds of spent plants storing energy for next year's crop.