Just when you think there isn’t one more thing you can love about spring, along come the first tender stalks of asparagus, the surest sign of the season, next to tulips. After a long winter hiatus, the first limbs of this wonderful vegetable are as welcome as the first warm rays of sun on winter-weary skin.
“Asparagus,” the name for this savory member of the lily family, comes from the Greek for “sprout” or “shoot.” Cultivation of asparagus began more than 2000 years ago in the eastern regions of the Mediterranean. Prized among the Greeks and Romans for its succulent texture, earthy flavor and medicinal qualities, this tender vegetable was eaten fresh in its season and dried for use during the winter months. In China, candied asparagus is considered a special treat even today.
Asparagus gained popularity during the 16th century in France and England and eventually made its way to America with the colonists. King Louis the XIV of France so loved asparagus that he had greenhouses built to provide him with a year-round supply, hence the title “Food of the Kings.”
In our modern world, this tender vegetable is at its peak in the spring, so save yourself the trouble of greenhouse building and enjoy it in season. Nearly 95% of the 200 million pounds of asparagus enjoyed by Americans is grown in California (with the balance grown in Washington, Michigan and the Mid-Atlantic states) and is at its peak season from March through May.
Asparagus grows on a perennial plant in furrowed fields, taking about 3 years to produce and needing temperate weather to thrive. Requiring a lot of careful hand labor, asparagus is hand-cut when it reaches about 9 inches in length, insuring lots of green and little waste.
So how do you know a tender asparagus when you see one? Look for bright green stalks, with compact, firm tips and smooth, clear skin. Look for even sizes of spears in the bunch you choose. Some myth blasting…it is untrue that fatter stalks of asparagus are less tender than their thinner counterparts. The tenderness of the stalks depends entirely on their green color. The richer the green (or white in the case of white asparagus), the more tender the asparagus.
Asparagus is delicate and requires careful handling. I like to say that it should be handled like fresh flowers. Trim the butt ends off and refrigerate the stalks, standing upright in a glass of water, covered loosely with a plastic bag. You may also wrap the ends in wet paper towels and store in a plastic bag. Either way, asparagus will last only a few days before its freshness is compromised. To cook, snap the butt ends off and steam boil, blanche, stir-fry or grill for the best flavor.
Naturally low in calories, fat, cholesterol and sodium, asparagus is the ideal vegetable for spring, providing us with light, fresh energy and lots of nutrients. Rich in folic acid, vitamin C, thiamin, vitamin B-6 and potassium, asparagus is high in the cancer-fighting micronutrient glutathione and blood vessel strengthening rutin. Along with these powerful nutrients, asparagus has been used since ancient Rome as a mild diuretic and is said to aid in relieving water retention.
Asparagus Salad with Pine Nut Vinaigrette
1 ½ pounds fresh asparagus, ends snapped, left whole
Makes 4-5 servings
Pine Nut Vinaigrette
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 cloves fresh garlic, finely minced
3-4 shallots, finely minced
generous pinch sea salt
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
2 teaspoons stoneground mustard
1 teaspoon brown rice syrup
juice of ½ fresh lemon
4 tablespoons pan toasted pine nuts
Place about 2 inches of spring or filtered water in a large, deep skillet and bring to a boil over medium heat. Cook asparagus until fork tender, 2-3 minutes. Drain well and arrange on a serving platter.
To make the dressing, combine oil, garlic, shallots and salt in a small saucepan and cook over low heat for 3-4 minutes, to develop the flavor. Remove from heat and whisk in vinegar, mustard, rice syrup and lemon juice. Adjust salt to taste. Stir in pine nuts. Generously spoon dressing over asparagus and serve the balance on the side.