It’s what’s for dinner
by Gay Lyons
One sure sign of spring is the fresher, prettier asparagus that starts showing up in our markets. As an added bonus, asparagus is not only good, it’s good for you, packing a tremendous amount of nutritional value into each slender stalk. Asparagus is a good source of potassium, fiber, vitamin B6, vitamins A and C and thiamin; it contains no fat or cholesterol and is low in sodium and in calories—only about four per spear.
I don’t recall eating much asparagus growing up. Back then, I only saw asparagus in its unfortunate canned form. Canned asparagus is a vile, mushy substance bearing almost no resemblance to its fresh form. If the only asparagus you’ve ever eaten was canned, then you haven’t had asparagus. I dislike it so intensely that I hurry past it in the grocery store, and when I encounter a recipe calling for canned asparagus, I shudder and quickly turn the page. That’s the short rant. Call me if you want the longer, more vituperative, more adjective-filled version.
The fresh asparagus I discovered around the time I started college was a revelation. I’ve been making up for lost time by eating it regularly ever since. The best I’ve ever had was grown by our neighbors Bob and Marge, who have a small asparagus patch in their back yard. Once when they were out of town during asparagus season, they asked me to keep an eye on it and harvest a few spears a day. For about 10 days I was in asparagus heaven, breaking off stems as soon as they were tall enough and running across the street to cook them.
Asparagus is an ancient vegetable, part of the lily family and related to onions and leeks. There is a reference to it in the oldest known recipe collection, a Roman book from the third century A.D. The word itself comes from the Greek word aspharagos , which derived from the Persian word asparag , meaning sprout or shoot.
Because it grows with relative ease in different climates, asparagus is served throughout Europe, Asia and North America. In China, candied asparagus spears are a special treat. During the Renaissance, because it was believed to be an aphrodisiac, it was banned from most convents. King Louis XIV of France was so fond of it that he ordered special greenhouses built so he could enjoy it year round. Candied asparagus sounds more than a little odd, and I haven’t noticed any aphrodisiacal properties, but I can understand wanting special greenhouses for the stuff. Today, we can get fresh asparagus year round, but the best comes in the early spring.
Growing asparagus requires patience, but that patience is rewarded later. After planting asparagus crowns, you must wait three years before your first harvest. And the first harvest lasts only a month. Starting with year four, you can safely harvest for eight to 10 weeks. I read somewhere that a spear of asparagus can grow 10 inches in 24 hours. Now that I’d like to see! Maybe Bob and Marge will let me come over and watch their asparagus grow. Best of all, because asparagus is a perennial, one planting will yield asparagus for anywhere from 15 to 25 years.
Since asparagus is used in so many cuisines across the world, the methods for preparing it are pretty diverse too. These websites are a good starting point for recipes using asparagus: www.recipezaar.com/r/107/429 , www.victoriaisland.net/recipes/page2.html and whatscookingamerica.net/Vegetables/AsparagusRecipes.htm .
I like my asparagus prepared simply. It’s hard to beat lightly steamed asparagus tossed with just a little butter, salt and pepper or tossed with a little olive oil and some parmesan cheese. I like asparagus mixed with pasta or baked in frittatas. I also like it roasted, which gives it a rich flavor. I recently had some asparagus wrapped in Serrano ham and broiled. If you can’t find the ham, you can do the same thing with prosciutto for an easy appetizer. Here’s a recipe for a fresh, colorful asparagus salad that is quick and easy to make.
Kathy’s Asparagus Salad