Wild asparagus was one of the first wild foods I learned to pick as a kid, and it is probably the one I hold dearest to my heart. I’m so smitten with the wild variety that I refuse to eat store-bought asparagus, with rare exceptions like an elderly aunt’s Thanksgiving table.
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When I teach people to identify asparagus in the wild, I remind them that it is the very same species of asparagus, Asparagus officinalis, sold in stores (in the U.S.). Thus, wild asparagus looks remarkably similar to the spears sold in grocery markets and is readily recognized once one knows what to look for. It may vary in diameter, from very thin as a whip to thicker than my thumb. Sometimes wild asparagus twists and curls as it reaches for the light, and it occasionally looks wild and raggedy. But more often than not, it looks quite similar to asparagus found in the store, and it always tastes good.
It occurred to me this year that I should run a taste test between wild and store-bought asparagus, given that they are essentially the same thing. I used the participants in one of my wild foods cooking classes as the test subjects. I presented two batches of identically cooked asparagus (steamed and dressed in olive oil and salt). I informed them that one was wild and one was purchased from a supermarket, and in a blind test, asked them which they preferred.
The results shocked me. I had thought that there was no way wild asparagus could lose. However, the tasters preferred the store-bought asparagus by a 3 to 1 margin. Even the tasters were surprised by the results, many swearing they thought for certain they had correctly chosen the wild asparagus.
I have some theories as to why the commercial asparagus won. Most of the tasters agreed wild asparagus tasted sweeter. Perhaps they had pre-formed notions that wild asparagus might taste slightly more bitter. I think my biggest mistake was in informing my tasters that they would be choosing between wild and store-bought asparagus. I simply should have asked them which they preferred without informing them why I wanted to know.
Will the results of my informal poll alter my preference for wild asparagus? Not a chance. For me, wild asparagus is as much about ritual and celebration as it is about flavor. I will continue to boycott the asparagus that comes from the store, and look forward to next spring’s crop of wild asparagus.
Simple Grilled Asparagus
1 pound thick asparagus
1 to 2 teaspoons olive oil
½ teaspoon sea salt
½ teaspoon lemon zest
1 tablespoon wild onion compound butter
1. Prepare the asparagus by using a vegetable peeler to peel the lower third of each stalk, and snapping off any ends that seem too woody.
2. Place the asparagus pieces on a sheet pan, drizzle them with the olive oil. Toss them around lightly until each spear is evenly coated with the oil. Next, season the asparagus with salt.
3. Grill the asparagus over moderately high heat, turning once, just until they start to blister and are tender when pierced with a knife. Do not overcook the asparagus, or it will become soggy and develop a bad flavor.
4. Once the asparagus is off the grill, finish it by letting the compound butter melt over the hot spears, then sprinkle them with the lemon zest.
Top photo: Grilled asparagus. Credit: Wendy Petty