Asparagus is a perennial treat. Their tender, succulent stalks can be enjoyed by lightly sautéing them in oil, bringing out their savory flavor and tenderizing them. Shooting up from their submerged crowns, they announce the coming of spring and the bountiful growing season that lay just around the corner. Just as soon as they arrive, though, they are gone, leaving us to await their triumphant return the following year. Their harvest window is a small one, so enjoy them while you can!
Asparagus History and Culture
Asparagus has been used as a food and medicinal source for nearly 2,000 years. One of the first recordings of asparagus is a recipe found in and Apicius cookbook written during Roman times in the third century. Egyptians and Greeks also cultivated asparagus, drying it for consumption during the winter months. During the Middle Ages, asparagus nearly fell off the map, until Louis XIV re-popularized it, going as far as making special greenhouses designed exclusively for its production.
Asparagus is now enjoyed by the world over. Asparagus grows best in cool, temperate climates in healthy, well-drained soils. They are not grown from seed, but are “cloned” by splitting their crowns, replanting them, and letting them re-establish themselves again. The crowns lie just beneath the surface of the soil, and shoot out the asparagus spears in early spring. West coast production sees spears emerge from the soil as early as February, where as the East coast will typically find spears in the field around May. Spear production stops soon after it appears, usually lasting between 2 and 8 weeks.
Currently, China leads the world in asparagus production, producing close to 6 million tons in 2007. Peru is a distant second at 200,000 tons, followed by the United States at 90,000 tons.
Asparagus Health Benefits
Asparagus has high levels of vitamin A and C. Vitamin A is notable in that it helps promote good vision, especially night vision. Vitamin C is necessary in all sorts of vital body functions, ranging from repairing tissue to forming blood vessels. It is water soluble, though, which means it cannot be stored in the body for later use, but rather needs to be replenished daily. Even a small helping of four asparagus spears will provide a considerable boost in both these vitamins.
Asparagus also has very high levels of folate, which promote heart health. Folate helps the heart actually pump, and when folate is found at deficient levels, the body has to compensate by producing more homocysteine, which increases the risk of heart disease. In a paper titled “The Importance of Folic Acid”, author Berg MJ states that by meeting the recommended daily intake of folates – and thus limiting the amount homocysteine released by the body – risk of heart disease drops rapidly. 20 – 40% of all heart disease patients, in fact, have high levels of homocystein.
Beyond its heart healthy effects, asparagus is also a diuretic. This has been the case for centuries, dating all the way back to Roman times when Galen stated that asparagus has “cleansing and healing” properties. Science would later prove him correct, stemming from a combination of its high potassium, anti-oxidant, and fiber content.
When asparagus is in season, eat lots of it. Not only is it good for your health, but it is a perennial treat, and should celebrated. Plus, once you’ve eaten your fair share of asparagus for the two months it’s available, you’ll be ready to move on to the sweeter and more colorful harvest that summer has to offer. By the time spring rolls around next year, you’ll be ready to celebrate it all over again.
When selecting asparagus, look for stocks that are thin and round. They should not be wilted and flimsy but firm. The base of the asparagus should not be totally woody, but a little woodiness is expected. Some places – such as health food stores and farmers’ markets – will offer purple and white asparagus, in addition to green. White asparagus is produced by depriving it of light when the spears shoot in spring, depriving its typical green color. It has a milder flavor and is more tender. Purple asparagus is simply a different variety that has a fruitier flavor – not to mention its beautiful aesthetic.
Steaming or boiling is the most common ways of preparing asparagus. The tips will cook at a different rate than the base, so make sure to cut off the woody part at the bottom for the sake of consistency. Briefly sautéing them on high heat – a few minutes, tops – results in a truly delicious side dish. A simple food, simply prepared.