Cooking School

Spring spears: How to pair asparagus with wine

By: Valerie Howes

Photography by Jim Norton Author: Canadian Living Credits: Photography by Jim Norton

Cooking School

Spring spears: How to pair asparagus with wine

By: Valerie Howes
To us Canadians, asparagus feels like nature's reward for making it through the winter. Its tall, emerald green stalks are full of grassy, vegetal flavour. (The less common white variety—picked as soon as the tips have broken through the soil, with the stalks unexposed to sunlight—is sweeter and creamier.) The vegetable's satisfyingly tender-crisp texture and versatility make asparagus a cook's favourite: You can steam, boil, roast, grill, stir-fry or preserve it—or serve it raw, with a creamy dip.

Shopping smarts

When you're shopping for asparagus, look for stalks with intense colour (all green or with pink- or purple-tinged tips). Too much white at the bottom means lots of waste, since the butts are snapped off and discarded. The buds should be tightly closed. Don't be surprised to see the season's earliest pencil-thin stalks replaced with fatter and juicier late bloomers. They're all delicious!

Fridge fresh
To keep asparagus fresh, carefully wrap the butts in damp kitchen paper and loosely cover the heads and stalks in a plastic bag before refrigerating. It's best not to stockpile this veggie: Buy enough for one meal and cook within two days, when it's still nice and crisp.

The big chill

If you're freezing fresh asparagus, wash it well first—sometimes the bottoms are sandy. Snap off the woody ends, then blanche the spears by dropping in boiling water for one minute, then transferring to an ice bath. Next, drain and carefully pat dry with kitchen paper before stashing in sealed freezer bags in meal-sized portions. Tip: If you intend to stir-fry your frozen asparagus, cut it into inch-long (2.5-cm) pieces before bagging.

A versatile veggie
Asparagus adapts well to different cuisines. Here's how chefs and cookbook authors across Canada like to use the green veggie in their dishes:

At Pukka—a contemporary Indian restaurant—Toronto chef Kirti Singh pan-fries asparagus with chopped onions, fresh coconut and turmeric as the base for an aromatic curry sauce.

Julie Daniluk, author of Meals that Heal Inflammation, says, "Asparagus is one of the best sources of selenium, a mineral that boosts thyroid function." She loves her spears blended into soup or raw in a crunchy veggie platter.

Edmonton chef Lino Oliviera, of the Portuguese- and Spanish-inspired restaurant Sabor, lightly chars his stalks, coarsely chops them and stirs into a lemon risotto, topping with freshly grated Parmesan and fresh ground pepper. "The earthy flavour of the asparagus balances the pucker of the lemon," he says.

"Grill it on the barbecue, but first toss it with extra-virgin olive oil, freshly squeezed lemon juice and a small amount of diced red chili," recommends Chef David Hawksworth, who cooks up Pacific Northwest dishes at Vancouver's Hawksworth Restaurant.

Fogo Island Inn's Chef Murray McDonald likes to pickle his asparagus in Labrador tea. (You can find it in most health food stores.) "It adds citrus and green cardamom flavour," says the Newfoundlander. McDonald serves his pickled asparagus with charcuterie or snow crab.

"Shaved, freshly picked asparagus paired with radish and topped with bottarga [dried mullet roe], olive oil, lemon, and Newfoundland sea salt is my quick spring go-to salad," says New Brunswick chef, farmer and Top Chef Canada fan favourite, Jesse Vergen.

"I like the Italian lunch of poached asparagus with a fried egg on top and plenty of grated Parmesan and black pepper," says Food Network Canada host and cookbook author Laura Calder. "Don't forget the glass of wine!"

A tricky match
Asparagus is notoriously challenging to pair with wine—blame cynarin, a chemical compound that can strip a wine of its nuances or even make it taste downright nasty. Chefs often char the spring vegetable to add caramelized notes, making it more wine-friendly. Tip: Buy thinner spears, as they contain less cynarin.

When serving asparagus, choose an aromatic, mineral Riesling or a sparkling acidic white, like Cava. A crisp Sauvignon Blanc will pair nicely, providing it's more fresh and fruity than vegetal. Grassy Grüner Veltliner also makes a perfect partner for lemon-spritzed raw or blanched asparagus. Avoid oaked whites— they will taste sickly sweet, since asparagus emphasizes the sweetness in wine.

Toronto-based sommelier Jamie Drummond recommends these wines for pairing with asparagus:

Cave Spring Riesling "Dry", Niagara Peninsula VQA, Ontario, Canada, $14.95. 
Notes of grapefruit and lime and a lip-smackingly crisp mineral-driven palate.

Domaine Wachau Grüner Veltliner "Durnstein Federspiel", Wachau, Austria, $15.10. 
Aromas of green apples and ripe pears, brisk acidity and an almost creamy mouthfeel.

Sandhill Sauvignon Blanc, Okanagan Valley VQA, British Columbia, Canada, $15.95
. Tangerine and lemon aromas with ripe citrus and subtle gooseberry flavours.

Check out all the fun and delicious ways you can cook asparagus.

Share X
Cooking School

Spring spears: How to pair asparagus with wine