A Harbinger of Spring: Asparagus
Asparagus is a tender stem vegetable belonging to the Asparagaceae family which is closely related to Liliaceae plants like garlic and onion. With its mildly pungent flavour, it has been recognised as a prized delicacy since ancient times.
Origin of Asparagus
Asparagus is is believed to be originated in the Middle East from where it soon spread to China, Egypt and Greece. According to historical evidence, asparagus was already known in Egypt 3000 years ago and in Greece it was cultivated as a medicinal plant about 2000 years ago. The Romans were the ones who brought it with them to the European countries they conquered. Today it can be found everywhere with a mild climate and sandy soil.
Asparagus is available in green, white and purple varieties, green being the most common of all. White asparagus is produced by growing stalks underground therefore is more delicate and difficult varietal to harvest. Purple asparagus is smaller in size and fruitier in flavour. However, unlike green asparagus, it is high in sugar and low in fibre.
Wild asparagus, on the other hand, is an edible wild plant, not a cultivated one like green, white and purple asparagus. It grows just like nature intended; pollinated by insects and seeds spread by birds. I personally enjoyed wild asparagus during our trip to Paris in 2015. Here’s a snapshot from a green grocer in Monmartre.
In Europe, the asparagus season runs from March until the end of June. Then the plants must be allowed to rest in order to produce the next season’s asparagus. However, we seem to be able to enjoy asparagus all year around these days as it is imported from a number countries including Peru and Mexico.
Choose asparagus with tightly closed, even-sized, compact tips and firm, brittle stalks that are green almost entire length except for white asparagus. When you snap fresh asparagus, it should be crisp, moist and juicy. By the way, thickness is not an indication of tenderness.
Asparagus should not be rinsed before it is stored. Wrap stem ends of stalks in wet paper towels; seal inside a plastic bag and keep in the fridge or trim off the base of stems about 1cm and place in a plastic. Alternatively, stand covered with plastic wrap in a glass containing 1cm water, and store it in the fridge. Use as soon as possible —3 days maximum.
Because asparagus grows in sandy soil, it is important to wash it throughly under running water —especially the tips—to remove all traces of sand. Always wash asparagus just before you use them.
To snap off tough ends, grasp stalk with both hands and bend with gentle pressure. Asparagus will tell you exactly where it should be snapped. The reason for this is any stem below bending point has the potential to be too fibrous and woody. Same thing goes for wild asparagus too.
White asparagus should always be peeled whereas green ones need peeling only if they are woody. I use my good old potato peeler for the job.
Cooking Tips for Asparagus
Before I get to specific cooking methods, there is one thing I’d like mention here: If you are cooking large amounts of asparagus, it is worth buying a special asparagus gadget like an asparagus steamer —it is sometimes called asparagus kettle. Because asparagus has thicker stems which takes longer to cook while the tender tips cook a lot faster, this gadget makes it possible to cook the asparagus upright so the heat is gentle on the tips as they stick out of the water and they get only steam as a heat source. Before you know it, they are gently done to perfection.
Boiling Asparagus: When boiling asparagus, use as little water as possible so that it loses the minimum amount of flavour and colour. This is especially important for the green variety. Do not overcook asparagus as it is considered as a culinary crime.
Pan-frying Asparagus: This is my favourite method. Melt the butter in a large frying pan and add the asparagus. Fry until it is just tender but not completely dead. The butter will help asparagus to brown well and keep it soft while retaining its flavour. Pan-fried asparagus is best used in side dishes.
Steaming Asparagus: There is no doubt that steaming is one of the healthiest cooking methods. Steam asparagus for about 4-6 minutes and immediately drop them into cold water. This’ll stop cooking process and keep the colour green too. Steamed asparagus is best used in salads.
Barbecuing Asparagus: Brush asparagus with oil and barbecue over medium-high heat for 2 minutes, turning often. It should be just tender at the end of cooking process.
Roasting Asparagus: Preheat oven to 260°C/500°F/Gas Mark 8. Arrange asparagus on a baking dish in a single layer. Drizzle with olive oil. Roast, turning halfway through roasting until browned, about 10 minutes.
Cooking Wild Asparagus: Wild asparagus can be eaten raw or steamed —the best method—sauteed, boiled and baked briefly. However you cook it, don’t kill it.
Where to Use
Asparagus can be used to prepare salads, purees, flans, frittatas, soups, vegetable bakes, souffles, pizza and in a large variety of pastries.
Here’s a list of ingredients which I believe go nicely with asparagus:
- Melted butter
- Hollandaise sauce (an absolute classic)
- Pine nuts (lightly toasted in a non-stick pan)
- Fresh parsley (I prefer flat-leaf parsley)
- Smoked tofu
- Mustard (Dijon mustard, that is)
- Chives or garlic chives (both work beautifully)
- Classic vinaigrette
- Olive oil
- Sour cream
- Fresh basil
- Shaved parmesan or gruyere cheese (You just need to make sure that asparagus is cool enough before you add any type of cheese)
And, wild asparagus goes nicely with these ingredients:
- Aged cheeses
- Spring onion (green onion or shallots)
If you’d like to add anything else to the list, please do so at the comments section.
Nutritional Profile of Asparagus
Asparagus is packed with nutrients which play a significant role in our health. To be precise, it is a great source of B1, B2, B6, C, E, K vitamins, calcium, magnesium, zinc, folate, iron, phosphorus, potassium, copper, manganese, selenium and chromium. It is also free of fat, cholesterol, low in calories and carbohydrates and high in dietary fibre –the most notable one being inulin—which makes it an ideal vegetable for dieters.
Therapeutic Uses of Asparagus
Throughout the ages, asparagus has been prized for its medicinal properties. Due to a diuretic amino acid called asparagine, it has the capacity to eliminate water through the kidneys. Also helps to cleanse the arteries of cholesterol and is useful in vascular problems such as hypertension and arteriosclerosis. In Chinese herbology, the underground tubers of asparagus are used to tonify the fluids of the kidneys and moisten the lungs. Due to its cooling properties, asparagus is also used to treat diabetes, tuberculosis, lung congestion and chronic bronchitis.
Wild asparagus (Asparagus racemosus) contains saponins.
Special Note on Asparagus: The Urine Smell
Some people smell it, some people don’t. However, there is an interesting compound called asparagusic acid which creates the smelly urine is the culprit here. After it’s been digested it breaks down into sulfur-containing compounds and like everything with a little bit of sulfur, it produces the unpleasant smell. Just saying…