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(article, Caroline Cummins)

Slim and straight and easy to cook, asparagus has become one of those vegetables sold year-round in supermarkets. It always looks so pretty, so elegant and firm. And the taste is such an addictive combination of grass and mushroom, green things and meaty ones. But that's only if you get it when it's in season locally — not in the fall and winter, when it's shipped in from South and Central America. 

As Deborah Madison has pointed out on these pages before, we may think of asparagus as an early-spring treat. But asparagus season varies: January in the hottest parts of California, May in Michigan, even July in Canada. So figure out when asparagus is local to you, and buy it then. 

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There's no taste difference between thin and thick asparagus; the thin stalks, obviously, cook faster, and some people prefer to peel the thick ones. White asparagus looks ghostly but is simply the result of mounding dirt over the stalks as they grow, preventing chlorophyll from doing its thing. Some folks prefer the milder flavor of white; others think it's a sort of cruel and unusual asparagus punishment.

All types, however, need nothing more than a rinse under water, a snap in the middle, and a trip  to the steamer, grill, broiler, roasting pan, or skillet. (Don't bother with a fancy asparagus steamer; a stockpot with a pasta insert, or an ordinary steam-basket setup, will work fine.)

Breaking the stalks at their middles is optional; you'll know you're a stalk-breaker if you find yourself chewing the fibrous root ends with distaste. To snap asparagus, simply pick up a stalk and bend it gently; it'll snap naturally at the point where the stalk is turning fibrous. Compost the fibrous ends, or save them to make asparagus stock.

Jane Grigson likes her asparagus with potatoes and eggs. Deborah Madison tosses the tips into an Asian-style noodle salad or just roasts the stalks in olive oil. And Carrie Floyd, Culinate's food editor, prepares asparagus with a lemon vinaigrette.

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