Time for Asparagus

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ImageAsparagus is one of the signature signs of spring in the food world.  It also happens to be one of my favorite vegetables and I am so excited that it is finally in season.  You can find asparagus year-round in the grocery store; however, it is only in season from about February to June.  You can find local asparagus in the spring at your local farmer’s market or grocery store.

In New England, you will find it in later spring around April. Although California, Washington and Michigan are the leading producers of asparagus in the United States, you can find the best asparagus right here in the Pioneer Valley.  Hadley, Massachusetts is known as the Asparagus Capital of the World producing some of the highest quality stalks around. They call it “Hadley Grass” because more than two-hundred acres of Hadley farm land is devoted to growing asparagus that you can find all across the United States.

Asparagus has been cultivated since the seventeenth century and it was considered highly valuable in ancient Rome, known as the “vegetable of kings”.  It was traded and used for medicinal purposes such as curing bee stings and toothaches. Today we might just say that it is expensive.  However, the reason it is such a pricey veggie is because it takes almost three years to grow one plant from a seed.  A mature plant, however, grows between six to eight inches a day.

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Asparagus is highly valued for it’s abundant nutritional advantages.  In fact, asparagus was once used as medicine and wasn’t even considered food.  Asparagus is thought to protect against various forms of cancer.  Along with avocados, kale and Brussels sprouts, asparagus contains high amounts of a detoxifying compound called glutathione.  This compound breaks down carcinogens in the body, fighting off multiple types of cancer.

This anti-aging vegetable protects and prolongs healthy eyesight and slows down the aging process because it is rich in antioxidants.  It also contains folate, which fights cognitive impairment.  Along with these age preventive benefits asparagus provides several other essential vitamins (A, B, C, K), iron, and fiber.

If these reasons aren’t convincing enough to go out and buy some fresh asparagus, it is a versatile vegetable that pairs  well with many flavors.  Some of my favorite ways to enjoy it are roasted with brown sugar, in quiche, or tossed in a stir-fry.  There are a few different varieties of asparagus that you can find this time of year.  The most common (usually available all year-round) is green asparagus.

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Notice how some of the asparagus tips are bent. Asparagus is geotropic which means that it wants to grow in the opposite direction of gravity. If you see asparagus with bent tips in the grocery store I means that it was shipped upside down or sideways. It is still okay to eat!

ImageImageDuring asparagus season, however, you can find white and purple varieties. White asparagus is picked before it sprouts above the soil and has a chance to reach the sunlight.  It is very common in Europe. Many Europeans actually prefer it to conventional green asparagus. It is bitter compared to green asparagus. Purple asparagus is called Viola asparagus and it is usually smaller with a fruiter flavor.

White, purple and green asparagus

White, purple and green asparagus

When you are looking for asparagus in the grocery store look for bright, firm stalks with tight, dry tips.  The thicker in diameter the older the age of the plant it came from.  Sometimes you will notice that the thicker stalks have a woody, fibrous texture to them.  This usually has to do with how they are cooked.  Thicker stalks require more cooking time. You will have to alter the cooking time for your asparagus based on the diameter of the stalks.

It is best to use the asparagus the same day that you buy it; however, I realize that is not always possible.  Asparagus dries from the bottom of the stocks and rots from the tips so you have to take extra care when you are storing them. What my mom always does is stand the stalks upright in a glass or dish filled with an inch of water. Some people even put a plastic bag loosely around the tips. Then you place it in the refrigerator until you are ready to cook.

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When you are ready to cook your asparagus wash the stalks thoroughly because they are grown in sand.  If you don’t wash them enough they will taste gritty. In order to retain the most nutrients when you cook them use a method that doesn’t involve water.  Asparagus is a completely different vegetable depending on whether it is cooked with wet or dry heat or left raw.  Dry heat (roasting, sautéing, grilling) enhances the amino acids giving it a “meatier” flavor. Wet heat (boiling, steaming) on the other hand brings out the grassy flavor of asparagus.  So the next time you prepare asparagus, try roasting or grilling them instead of boiling them.

Here is a simple recipe for roasted asparagus with lemon and Parmesan cheese that would make a simple, healthy side dish or appetizer.

Oven Roasted Asparagus with Lemon Zest and Parmesan Cheese

Serves 4

Ingredients

1 lb of asparagus

2 Tablespoons of olive oil

1 lemon (zested, juiced)

1/4 c. of Parmesan cheese

Salt and pepper

Directions

Preheat the oven to 400º.  Wash the asparagus thoroughly and snap off the tough, woody ends.  Instead of cutting of the ends of your asparagus, take each stalk individually and find the point where it breaks naturally.  They should snap at the natural breaking point when you bend them. Then toss the asparagus in a gallon size freezer bag.  Toss them with the olive oil and lemon juice. Spread them out on a cookie sheet and sprinkle with lemon zest, salt and pepper.  Place them in the oven for 10 minutes until they are fork tender.  Finish them by grating fresh Parmesan over the top.  Serve warm.

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Sources:
“Vegetarian [Paperback].” Vegetarian: Nicola Graimes: 9780760749531: Amazon.com: Books. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Dec. 2012. (40)
“The Deluxe Food Lover’s Companion (Deluxe Edition) [Hardcover].” The Deluxe Food Lover’s Companion (Deluxe Edition): Sharon Tyler Herbst, Ron Herbst: 9780764162411: Amazon.com: Books. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Dec. 2012. (27)
"5 Powerful Health Benefits of Asparagus You Probably Didn't Know." Healthy Recipes, Healthy Eating, Healthy Cooking. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Apr. 2013.
"Homegrown: Asparagus." Asparagus Capital of the World Hadley, Massachusetts. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Apr. 2013. 
"Good Eats." Age of Asparagus: Food Network. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 Apr. 2013.