The essence of spring? When the tender shoots of asparagus poke their heads through the ground for us to enjoy.
Aspargus is a member of the lily family which also includes onions, leeks and garlic. The plant was supposedly cultivated more than 2,000 years ago in the eastern Mediterranean region. Ancient Chinese herbalists have used asparagus root to treat many maladies from arthritis to infertility.
Asparagus is one of the most nutritionally well-balanced vegetables. It leads nearly all produce items in the wide array of nutrients it supplies to a healthy diet. One-half cup of cooked asparagus contains significant amounts of folic acid, vitamin C, potassium and beta-carotene. Folic acid helps prevent birth defects, cervical cancer, colon and rectal cancer and heart disease. Vitamin C protects against cancer, heart disease and also helps boost the immune system.
Asparagus is a natural diuretic and a heart-healthy food, containing no fat, cholesterol or sodium. But consuming asparagus can cause something known as “smelly urine.” Most authorities say that the compound that causes the odor in urine is methylmercaptan, which is a sulfur-containing derivative of the amino acid, methionine. Others claim that the odiferous compound is asparagine-amino-succinic-acid monoamide, which is derived from the amino acid, asparagine. In either case, the product is formed as a derivative during the digestion and subsequent breakdown of beneficial amino acids that occur naturally in asparagus.
Asparagus plants come in different varieties and are either male or female. The male produce more stalks of a smaller size and the female produce less stalks but larger in size. Aspargus comes in several varieties: green, purple and white. Milder and more delicate white asparagus is grown with dirt mounded around the emerging stalk to deprive it of light. Since the plant cannot produce chlorophyll without light, there is no green color to the stalks.
You can prepare this vegetable in many ways — boiling, broiling, stir-frying, microwaving or even eating it raw. It is so easy to fix, taking only 5 to 7 minutes to cook. I’ve read many articles on which is more tender — the small thin shoots or the larger diameter spears-there is no definite answer. When buying asparagus, look for firm, fresh, spears with closed, compact tips and uniform diameter (it helps the spears to cook in the same amount of time). Ridges in the stems and a dull green color are an indication of old age.
The stalks should not be limp or dry at the cut. Do not wash your asparagus before storing. Trim the end and either stand them upright in a jar with about an inch of water in the bottom and cover with a plastic bag or soak a paper towel in water and wrap around the bottom and put in a plastic bag. When you get ready to use the asparagus break off the woody part by bending it and it will snap at the part that is woody (save this for soup stock).
This easy recipe comes from my friend, Debi Stumpff.
Cut 1 bunch asparagus into pieces and steam until al dente. In a 9- by 9-inch pan, layer asparagus, 2 sliced hard-cooked eggs and 1 cup grated cheddar cheese. In a medium saucepan, melt 2 tablespoons buter then add 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour and stir to form a past. Add 1 cup milk and stir constantly until thick. Add salt and pepper to taste. Pour sauce over top of casserole; bake uncovered at 350 degrees for 30 minutes.
Donna Cook is the owner of Rabbit Creek Gourmet Foods in Louisburg, Kan. She is also a master gardener and master food volunteer and is on the board of directors of the Home Baking Association.