Real Food Encyclopedia | Asparagus
Arguably the most iconic of the spring vegetables, asparagus (Asparagus officinalis) is grown around the world and has been celebrated for millennia. Ancient Egyptians are said to have enjoyed it as many as 20,000 years ago, and Rome’s first emperor, Augustus, employed a whole group of ships, the so-called “asparagus fleet,” to transport huge shipments of it.
Any asparagus enthusiast will tell you that despite its year-round appearance in modern American grocery stores, it is far tastier grown locally and enjoyed in the spring. But our modern tendency to go to great lengths to eat it whenever we want isn’t new. France’s King Louis XIV had special greenhouses built to grow the delicacy year-round, the Romans were known to freeze it in the Alps and both they and the Greeks reportedly dried it for off-season noshing.
Fun facts about asparagus:
- It’s not just you. A surprising amount of research has been conducted over the years to investigate whether asparagus affects the urinary scent of everyone who eats it and whether or not everyone can detect the odor (apparently, not everyone can, and some studies point to an “asparagus pee gene”).
- It takes three years from the time that a grower sows an asparagus seed before its first real harvest.
- Asparagus is a flowering perennial and a cousin to garlic, which unfurls into a fern-like plant when left unharvested.
What to look for when buying asparagus
Asparagus comes in four varieties: green, white, purple and wild. Purple asparagus is reported to be more tender, and sweeter, too. It tends to grow fatter stalks, with fewer per “crown” than its green and white counterparts. Purple asparagus must be treated specially to maintain its color through the cooking process and white is only so because it is covered with dirt during the final stages of its growth, robbing it of chlorophyll. The jury is out on the result — some say it’s more tender, others less so — but without doubt, it is highly prized in Europe. Wild asparagus stalks are said to be thinner than a pencil.
The most common U.S. variety, green asparagus, ranges in shade from light to medium green, with dark or purple tips. It varies in width and length but tends to be sold at around 8–10 inches. Its flavor is mildly sulphuric, mostly sweet and slightly nutty.
When shopping, look for the thinnest stalks possible; these are the most tender. Steer clear of the limp and the wilted. Look for closed tips with no offshoots. The asparagus should have a fresh scent; give it a sniff and if it smells musty, give it a pass. If it’s bunched, try to find a bunch that is uniform in width, so that the spears will cook evenly.
Sustainability of asparagus
In terms of pesticide load, asparagus is listed as part of the Clean 15 on the Environmental Working Group’s Shoppers’ Guide to Pesticides in Produce with no detectable pesticide residues on 90 percent of samples tested. In terms of water, asparagus doesn’t like much, so it stands to reason that compared to a lot of other vegetables, its water footprint is pretty small. And unless it’s grown in a hothouse or imported from another coast or hemisphere, its energy requirements would seem to be pretty small, too.
Asparagus season generally runs from April to mid-June and sometimes into July in the northern US, and starts earlier in more southerly climes (around February in California).
China leads global production, followed by Peru and then the U.S. (especially in California, Washington and Michigan). Germany is also famous for asparagus, especially the white variety.
Things go downhill for asparagus pretty rapidly, so try to eat it as soon as possible. If you must wait, you can preserve your bounty by trimming the ends of the stalks and standing the bunch (still bound together — if you bought them loose, then tie them up for balance) in a cup of water in the refrigerator.
- Some people peel asparagus, but unless you’re dealing with exceptionally woody stalks, it is generally unnecessary.
- However, you absolutely should trim the end of each spear. The question is, how much should you trim before preparing? This tip takes the guesswork out of trimming: Grasp a stalk with one hand around the root end at its furthest point, and the other about mid-way down the stalk and gently bend. Wherever it breaks is where it should be trimmed to.
- The French invented special tall, narrow pots for steaming asparagus that allow for the woody stems to be immersed in the boiling water, while allowing the tender tips to remain out. (If you have a tall enough pot, you can achieve the same effect by binding your bunch with string or foil.)
The most important thing — by far — about preparing asparagus is not to overcook it. It is delicious raw, shaved or sliced quite thin, steamed or roasted or grilled (which enhances its nutty flavor).
Asparagus isn’t cheap. In general, when it comes to farmers’ market vegetables, buying more of whatever is in season and preserving some, and/or buying toward the end of the market day, or the end of the growing season, are good strategies for cutting back on cost. If you choose to buy a bunch and preserve it, blanching it and then freezing it would work well. Drying for use in soups is another possibility, and of course, pickled asparagus is great in Bloody Marys and salads.
Like most green vegetables, asparagus is good for you. Among its healthful properties are folate, Vitamin C, potassium, inulin (which is said to be “prebiotic” and is known to aid in digestion), anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory properties and possibly anti-cancer effects. Asparagus has also been used medicinally as a laxative, and its cooking water has been used as a wash to treat acne.
Top photo by Stephanie Studer/Unsplash.