A vegetable with long, tender shoots that are generally categorized as white, purple and green varieties, all belonging to a plant in the lily family. The shoots of the green or white variety are usually harvested when the stalks reach a height of 8 inches and are 1/4 to 1/2 inch thick. They are always harvested by hand. The color of the asparagus is determined by the amount of exposure to sunlight. This vegetable has small leaves that look like scales tightly packed near the tips, which are especially popular because of their soft to crunchy texture and mild flavor. Green asparagus is traditionally the most common variety in the United States, while purple or white asparagus is usually available on a limited basis in specialty markets. White asparagus is the type that is most popular in Northern Europe. The white variety has less flavor then the green or purple. The purple variety is generally harvested when the stalks reach a height of approximately 3 inches. Once cooked, this asparagus provides a somewhat distinctive fruity flavor.

How to use: Asparagus can be boiled, steamed, sautéed, grilled, pickled, or served cold. It makes an enjoyable appetizer, or a good complement to salads, vegetable dishes, and soups. Asparagus can also be pureed to be used for soups and soufflés.

At their best: Asparagus is best when in season in your area, which in many areas begins in March and runs through June. Asparagus is harvested throughout the year in one area of the world or another, making it available year round. It is best when eaten within a couple of days of harvesting so if it needs to be brought in from another area of the world the quality is not going to be as good as it would be if purchased locally. When it is in season in your area and you can purchase it the same day or within a day or two of harvesting.

How to buy: Select asparagus with stalks that are firm, crisp, and have heads that are full, tightly closed, and not discolored. Check the aroma from the bunched asparagus as it should not give off an objectionable odor. The ends of the asparagus that have been cut should be moist and fresh in appearance, not dried or cracking.

Storage: Asparagus is very perishable. Fresh asparagus will last about 3 to 4 days while blanched asparagus can last for 9 months in the freezer. Do not wash asparagus before storing. Wash it just before using. To store fresh asparagus, wrap the stalks in a damp cloth and place in a plastic bag that is not airtight. Airtight bags will trap moisture, causing the asparagus to become soggy. Fresh asparagus can also be stored by trimming an inch off the stem end, wrapping ends with a wet paper towel and then stand the spears upright in a glass or upright container filled with a couple of inches of water. Place a loose plastic bag over the spear tips and store in the refrigerator.