Asparagus

In many regions, asparagus are the first sign of springtime fresh eating.

If you have only tried canned asparagus, you'll want to take the time to learn about fresh asparagus and give this amazing vegetable a try. Let's take a look at this super-green springtime miracle and how to enjoy it.

Pick up any recipe book and chances are you will find at least a few amazing recipes with asparagus in the supporting, or starring, role. Give asparagus a try in a new recipe and see for yourself why people have been raving about asparagus for centuries.

Asparagus in history

Asparagus had an early start in the medicinal field due to its diuretic properties. You can actually find a recipe for cooking asparagus in the oldest known cookbook, Apicius' De re coquinaria, Volume III. Asparagus was originally cultivated by the Egyptians. Later the Greeks and Romans ate fresh asparagus during the warm spring and summer months and dried it to use in soups during the colder winter months. In the Middle Ages, asparagus lost its popularity, returned later in the seventeenth century and has become a popular vegetable in today's culinary environment.

Asparagus was once classified in the lily family like its cousins onion and garlic, but has since been moved into the flowering plant family, named Asparagaceae.

The green variety of asparagus is eaten worldwide, though the availability of imports throughout the year has made it less of a delicacy than it once was. In the UK, due to the short growing season and demand for local produce, asparagus commands a premium and the summer season is looked forward to all year long.

In northern Europe, there is a strong following for white asparagus which is local to the region, nicknamed 'white gold.' Asparagus was so highly demanded in the Eastern world that France's Louis XIV had special greenhouses built solely for growing it.

In the northern climates in the United States, spring is anxiously awaited for many reasons, including the asparagus that starts peeking through the ground as soon as the snow melts and the soil warms. Wild asparagus, or 'roadside asparagus' is a welcome sight, making many a motorist stop and pick fresh asparagus to their heart's content.

Trivia

Asparagus grows naturally as a perennial plant in Europe (mostly Spain, Ireland, and Germany) and the United States. The leaves are actually the spear shaped stalks that, in a traditional leaf, would be the stem running down the middle. Early in the growing season, the tender asparagus spike is small and slender without buds or berries. That's when they are perfect for plucking. The asparagus plant usually produces yellowish or white bell-shaped flowers and small red berries once the plant has matured into a hard, woody plant, not suitable for eating. As a matter of fact, the berries are poisonous.

Storage

When choosing your asparagus bunch from the grocery store, look for firm, small, dark green shoots with tightly bunched heads. This will ensure you get the freshest batch. The bottom portion of the asparagus may be woody and covered in sand and dirt. Wash the asparagus thoroughly, then give the stem a quick snap; the stalk will bend and break where it is tender, so just throw out the bottoms that snap off.

Fresh asparagus are best eaten on the day they were purchased. Nevertheless, they will keep in the fridge for 3-4 days wrapped tightly in film. If there is no fridge, let them stand in a container with about 1 inch (2.54 cm) water, as if they were a bunch of flowers, then cover the container with a plastic bag.

Asparagus are available canned or frozen - from which follows that asparagus are a candidate for home canning.

Preparation and cooking

Asparagus spears are served in a number of ways. A typical preparation would be as an appetizer or side dish. In Asian cooking, asparagus is often added to stir-fry and served with chicken, shrimp, or beef. Asparagus is often eaten wrapped in bacon or quickly grilled over charcoal. Many cultures use asparagus to flavor soups or served steamed with a light Hollandaise sauce. You'll find asparagus, lightly cooked and bright green in color, diced and tossed in a variety of pasta dishes, hot or cold.

An easy way to cook asparagus without over cooking it, which would leave it bitter and limp, is to roast it on a baking sheet tossed with olive oil and salt. Quickly blanching the asparagus in a basket dropped into a deep pot of boiling water, then cooling in an ice bath, is another way to maintain the color, flavor, and crisp-tender texture perfect for asparagus.

Although asparagus is not usually not eaten raw - it is often flash-cooked to maintain the crunch of raw with the flavor of cooked - it is perfectly safe to do so. Just rinse well with water to remove any traces of sand and serve with a sauce or dip.

Flavor quiches, strata, omelets or scrambled eggs with asparagus. Try eggs scrambled with tender, thin green asparagus tips, garlic shoots and shrimp, a Spanish all time favorite recipe, for a delightful treat.