If you have only tried canned asparagus, you’ll want to take the time to learn about fresh asparagus. It’s a night and day difference from the canned stuff. Give this amazing vegetable a second try if someone has messed up your first experience. Even if it was you that tried to make it the first time and it didn’t work out. Here are some facts about it and great ways to prepare.
What is it?
Asparagus grows naturally as a perennial plant in Europe (mostly Spain, Ireland, and Germany) and the United States.
The leaves are actually the spear shaped stalks that you eat. In a traditional style plant, would be the stem running down the middle and not the leaves. Early in the growing season, the tender asparagus spike is small and slender without buds or berries. That’s when they are perfect for plucking. The thinner stalk, the better the texture. If the stalk has gotten thick then the veggie will be woody in texture and quite gross. The asparagus plant usually produces yellowish or white bell-shaped flowers and small red berries once the plant has matured into a hard, woody plant, not suitable for eating. As a matter of fact, the berries are poisonous.
Asparagus had an early start in the medicinal field due to its diuretic properties. You can actually find a recipe for cooking asparagus in the oldest known cookbook, Apicius’ De re coquinaria, Volume III. Asparagus was originally cultivated by the Egyptians. Later the Greeks and Romans ate fresh asparagus during the warm spring and summer months and dried it to use in soups during the colder winter months. In the Middle Ages, asparagus lost its popularity, returned later in the seventeenth century and has become a popular vegetable in today’s culinary environment.
If you are looking for a low calorie, nutrient rich vegetable, asparagus is the answer. Asparagus is a great source of vitamin B’s, calcium, magnesium, and zinc. With high amounts of dietary fiber found in the outer stalk and elevated levels of folic acid, iron and vitamins E and K, asparagus is also a great food for pregnant women or nursing mothers as these are nutrients your baby needs to develop and stay healthy. Hmm, sounds like a super food doesn’t it?
Asparagus was once classified in the lily family like its cousins onion and garlic, but has since been moved into the flowering plant family, named Asparagaceae.
The green variety of asparagus is eaten worldwide, though the availability of imports throughout the year has made it less of a delicacy than it once was. In the UK, due to the short growing season and demand for local produce, asparagus commands a premium and the summer season is looked forward to all year long.
In northern Europe, there is a strong following for white asparagus which is local to the region, nicknamed ‘white gold.’ Asparagus was so highly demanded in the Eastern world that France’s Louis XIV had special greenhouses built solely for growing it.
In the northern climates in the United States, spring is anxiously awaited for many reasons, including the asparagus that starts peeking through the ground as soon as the snow melts and the soil warms. Wild asparagus, or ‘roadside asparagus’ is a welcome sight, making many a motorist stop and pick fresh asparagus to their heart’s content.
How to eat
Asparagus spears are served in a number of ways. A typical preparation would be as an appetizer or side dish. In Asian cooking, asparagus is often added to stir-fry and served with chicken, shrimp, or beef. In the United States, asparagus is often eaten wrapped in bacon or quickly grilled over charcoal. Many cultures use asparagus to flavor soups or served steamed with a light hollandaise sauce. You’ll find asparagus, lightly cooked and bright green in color, diced and tossed in a variety of pasta dishes, hot or cold.
An easy way to cook asparagus without over cooking it, which would leave it bitter and limp, is to roast it on a baking sheet tossed with olive oil and salt. Quickly blanching the asparagus in a basket dropped into a deep pot of boiling water, then cooling in an ice bath, is another way to maintain the color, flavor, and crisp-tender texture perfect for asparagus. Asparagus is usually not eaten raw, but is often flash-cooked to maintain the crunch of raw with the flavor of cooked.
When choosing your asparagus bunch from the grocery store, look for firm, small, dark green shoots with tightly bunched heads. This will ensure you get the freshest batch. The bottom portion of the asparagus may be woody and covered in sand and dirt. Wash the asparagus thoroughly, then give the stem a quick snap; the stalk will bend and break where it is tender, so just throw out the bottoms that snap off.
Pick up any recipe book and chances are you will find at least a few amazing recipes with asparagus in the supporting, or starring, role. Give asparagus a try in a new recipe and see for yourself why people have been raving about asparagus for centuries.
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