By Dawn M. Swidorski
For me, the first harbinger of spring is when the plum trees bloom – in California that’s usually sometime in late February. The next arrival, and the one that confirms it’s no fluke, is asparagus.
Now I must confess that even as a child I liked asparagus – even when the only way to get it was out of the Jolly Green Giant’s can. I can remember opening a can and eating them just for a snack. So you can imagine how I feel about fresh asparagus!
Asparagus is a member of the lily family which also includes onions, leeks and garlic. It grows from a “crown” that is planted at least a foot deep in sandy soil. Asparagus has a short growing season only about 6 – 7 weeks (a bit longer in California) in spring and early summer. Under ideal conditions an asparagus spear can grow 10 inches in a 24 hour period. That’s almost fast enough to actually watch it grow! The outdoor temperature actually is what determines how fast asparagus grows and in warmer weather may need to be picked every day.It also isn’t a staple of the home garden because it takes at least 3 years for asparagus plants to get established and start producing – which is just too long except for the most dedicated of home gardener. But if you do plant asparagus you will have a crop that produces for at least 15 years before replanting is necessary. After harvesting, the asparagus grows into a fern-like plant that produces red berries (not good for eating) that the plant needs to grow and produce new spears the following year. In the US asparagus is cultivated commercially in California (naturally), Washington and Michigan.
I’d like to dispel a myth that I used to subscribe to when it came to asparagus – thinner stalks are not better! I always assumed the little ones were more tender since that’s the way it works with most vegetables. But, it turns out the skinny stalks are secondary or tertiary growth off the main stalk and just aren’t as juicy. Yes, sometimes the big fat stalks have a little “woodiness” to them – just shave the non-spear end lightly with a vegetable peeler and you’re good to go.
Asparagus also comes in more than green. It also comes in purple and white. Some white asparagus is available here and there in the United States, though it is much more popular in Europe (and more expensive). White asparagus is actually green asparagus that hasn’t been allowed exposure to the sun so it lacks the chlorophyll of green. It takes about 5 times as much effort to keep it under wraps so it doesn’t get that dose of sunshine – hence the larger price tag. The taste is a bit different, not as well – green – but that lack of green also robs it of some of its nutrients and phytochemicals.
Asparagus is a nutrient-dense food which is high in Folic Acid, a good source of potassium, fiber, vitamin B6, vitamins A and C, and thiamin. Asparagus has No Fat, contains No Cholesterol and is low in Sodium.
I think asparagus is great on its own. So I’m partial to steaming it and eating it just like that. It’s also great roasted at a high heat in a little olive oil for about 6 – 9 minutes until tender.
But I know that some people might need a bit more of a disguise for their asparagus. If that’s the case you can include it in a frittata, blanch it and wrap it with prosciutto, or try the two recipes listed below.
Just don’t wait – the season doesn’t last long!