August 1, 2015
Asparagus are the young shoots of a cultivated lily plant. They have a very distinct savoury flavour. Asparagus was first cultivated about 2500 years ago in Greece. That’s also where the name comes from – meaning stalk or shoot.
Mostly you will finde green and white asparagus. They are actually the same thing. White asparagus gets carefully covered with soil – without exposure to sunlight the shoots remain white. It is cut just as the tips emerge. Sometimes called “white gold”, “edible ivory” asparagus or “the royal vegetable”, the white asparagus is less bitter and much more tender.
On very rare occasions you will be able to find purple asparagus. [That one is actually a different variety] Purple asparagus differs from its green and white counterparts, having high sugar and low fiber levels. Its attractive violet coloring is only skin deep as its flesh is pale green to creamy white.Cooked purple asparagus develops flavoral notes of artichoke, barley and almonds.
Asparagus is native to most of Europe, northern Africa and western Asia, and is cultivated in very sandy soil. The asparagus plant grows to be up to 150 cm tall with poisonous fruits. But what you want are the thin and tender shoots. Once the buds start to open, the shoots quickly turn woody.
In ancient times, it was also known in Syria and in Spain. Greeks and Romans ate it fresh when in season, and dried the vegetable for use in winter. Romans even froze it high in the Alps. There is a recipe for cooking asparagus is in the oldest surviving book of recipes [De re coquinaria, Book III].
Nowadays asparagus is available almost year round. But in central Europe it’s at it best and most plentiful from May to July.
SHOPPING + STORAGE
Since asparagus is considered to be one of the delicacies of the vegetable world it often has a price tag to match.
The tips should be tightly furled and perky, rather than limp. The shoots should be straight, firm and never discolored.
Thin spears of asparagus tend to be younger and fresher in flavour, whilst thicker spears will have been left to grow for longer and have a more pronounced flavour. Thin asparagus cook quickly and tend to have a crisp exterior and soft center, while thick asparagus take a bit longer to cook and have a bulkier texture. Either type of asparagus is excellent no matter how you cook it, with the main difference being the final texture.
Try and use your asparagus as soon as possible. If you don’t use it straight away, wrap in damp kitchen paper, put in a perforated paper or plastic bag and keep in the salad drawer of the fridge. You can also store it in a glass or jug of cold water in the fridge.
Young green and purple asparagus needs no preparation other than a wash. The base of larger asparagus [which will also have more flavour] is tough and woody, and not very tasty when it’s cooked. So bend the spear until it snaps and throw the woody end away. If the ends still feel tough, you can pare away the exterior to reveal the more tender flesh beneath. The finest texture and the strongest and yet most delicate taste is in the tips.
White asparagus is usually thicker and needs to be peeled. Just take a vegetable peeler [there are special asparagus peeler too] and lightly stroke it from the middle of the asparagus to the base. Finally snap off the end like you would do with the green ones.
Whit asparagus is usually blanched or steamed [3-5 minutes depending on thickness] and goes traditionally with ‘sauce hollandaise’ – a classic French sauce made of melted butter, fresh egg yolks, lemon juice and a little mustard or a pinch of cayenne.
Thin green asparagus is a good choice for use in salads or stir fries.
Green and purple asparagus can be fried in a pan, drizzled with olive oil and grilled in the oven or simply roast on the BBQ. Try seasoning with salt and lemon juice – or wrap in bacon.
All asparagus can be cooked, mashed and eaten as soup. Try topping it off with a poached egg -makes a great flavour combination.
But the list for cooking possibilities is endless. You can stir fry or deep fry them, put them in lasagna, quiche or pasta. You can even eat them raw if you feel like it.
Purple asparagus is tender enough to be eaten raw and if cooked, it will dull in color. Cooking should be done so over high and brief heat, whether grilled, sauteed or steamed.
Asparagus goes great with Parmesan, olive oil, lemon juice, prosciutto, crumbled feta cheese and goat cheese.
Asparagus can also be pickled and stored for several years. Not one of my personal favourites.
All types pack a nutritional punch, with high levels of vitamins A and C, potassium, iron and calcium. They act as a diuretic, giving urine an unmistakable aroma [which, curiously, not everyone can smell]. Water makes up 93% of asparagus’s composition. It is low in calories and is very low in sodium. And just to have mentioned it – asparagus have a an aphrodisiac working.
Nutritional value per 100g [% of Daily Value]