My earliest memories of asparagus come from my grandfather’s garden. We lived in the remote Catskill Mountains with working farms on both sides of our house. The land the house was built on belonged to my grandfather, and he was a gardener. I always knew when spring was about to explode by the asparagus that shot up in the front yard.

At that point in my life, I didn’t know you could eat those beautiful green stems tinged with purple. I thought they were unique plants that signaled the end of winter. It was my mom who collected the green shoots and showed me how to cook them.

Little did I realize that my relationship with asparagus was just beginning.

Asparagus is a curious vegetable – actually a member of the lily family, distantly related to leeks and onions. It’s been around for centuries, enjoying the attention of Hippocrates, who used it as a medicinal ingredient, as well as European kings and princes who insisted it be cultivated for royalty.

We’ve since learned to enjoy asparagus year-round, although March and April are peak season for the bright green spears.

Much of our asparagus grows in the states during season, mostly in Michigan. These we supplement with Chilean and Mexican asparagus.

Although most home cooks will tackle asparagus, it’s one of those vegetables that is a bit intimidating. But I find it one of the most versatile.

When you shop for asparagus, look for bright green stalks that appear crisp and firm. Wrinkles and limpness are signs of age. Asparagus comes in many different diameters from thick to pencil-thin. I go for the medium ones as I find their flavor is better, and they are still quite tender.

If you want to store asparagus in your refrigerator a few days before cooking, cut off the ends and stand the stem ends of the spears in 1 inch of water. Place a plastic bag over the tips to keep them fresh.

Always cut or break the last few inches of the asparagus off where the stems turn woody and tough. In addition, thick asparagus needs to be peeled with a vegetable peeler almost from base to tip before cooking.

Asparagus can be steamed, boiled, stir-fried, grilled or roasted.

To steam, place in a steamer basket just above water, cover and cook about 10 minutes depending on size.

To boil, barely cover with lightly salted water and boil gently 5 to 7 minutes until just tender. After boiling or steaming, if you’re not going to eat the asparagus right away, rinse in ice water until chilled. This preserves the beautiful bright green color. When ready to use, dip them in boiling water or microwave them, or eat them chilled with vinaigrette.

To stir-fry, cut the asparagus on the diagonal in 1- to 2-inch lengths. Heat 1 tablespoon olive or canola oil with 1 teaspoon Asian sesame oil over high heat in a wok or saute pan and add the cut asparagus. You can add a bit of minced garlic and ginger root to the pan along with a drizzle of soy sauce.

To microwave, place a bunch of trimmed asparagus in a microwave-safe dish, add 1 inch water and cover tightly with plastic wrap. Cook on high 4 to 5 minutes until tender.

I enjoy asparagus either grilled or roasted. I simply toss the trimmed spears with a good quality extra-virgin olive oil, coarse salt and pepper, sometimes a bit of garlic and then toss them on the grill or in a 450-degree oven to cook 5 to 6 minutes. Another favorite way to enjoy asparagus is to boil or grill them and then eat them at room temperature doused with vinaigrette and topped with chopped egg and soy bacon bits.

Leftover asparagus is great mashed and stirred into potatoes, on sandwiches, baked with melted cheese or tossed into soups. I often mix them into potato salad as well.

© 2005 South Florida Sun-Sentinel. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.