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Exploring Asparagus: How to Love This Beautiful Veggie

Linda explores food facts, folklore, and fabulous recipes one ingredient at a time.

fresh asparagus spears

fresh asparagus spears

It's All About the Love

President John Adams once wrote a letter to his wife Abigail in which he asked her:

"Pray, how does your asparagus perform?"

Wow, what a romantic!

It's May, and asparagus is performing very well in my little corner of the world. Large grocery stores, family-owned markets, and even little produce stands are all heralding the arrival of the first tender asparagus spears. I am delighted; however, based on the results of a recent Google search, I sense that I might be all alone in my enthusiasm.

The Facts Ma'am, Just the Facts

Asparagus is a perennial (that means it grows year after year) vegetable with sturdy stems and feathery foliage that grows 40 to 60 inches tall. Asparagus is a native plant in Europe, northern Africa, and western Asia, and it is cultivated throughout the world. Plants must be two to three years old before they produce a crop, but after that they can be quite prolific; they have a life span of at least 20 years. The "crowns" of asparagus are planted in winter, and the first shoots appear in spring. The first pickings or "thinnings" are known as sprue asparagus.

Asparagus is said to be a useful companion plant for tomatoes as the tomato plant repels the asparagus beetle. And in return, it is thought that asparagus may repel some harmful root nematodes that affect tomato plants. See, it really is about the love!

Asparagus Is Easy to Grow

  • Botanical name: Asparagus officinalis
  • Plant type: Vegetable
  • USDA Hardiness Zones: 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9
  • Sun exposure: Part sun
  • Soil type: Sandy
  • Soil pH: Slightly acidic to neutral

How to Select, Store, and Prepare Asparagus for Cooking

  • One pound of asparagus yields about 18 to 24 spears
  • Spears thinner than a pencil should be overlooked—I know there are a few fans but I find them to be stringy, not tender
  • Spears should be smooth and tips should be closed
  • Spears that are dull green, have tips beginning to open, or have ridges on the stems are showing signs of age. They will be tough and stringy, so don't buy them!
  • Choose spears of uniform thickness so that they will all cook at the same rate.
  • Do not wash asparagus until you are ready to cook it.
  • Trim about 1 inch from the ends and stand your asparagus upright in a tall glass; keep refrigerated, but not longer than 2 days
  • Because asparagus is grown in sandy soil, rinse the spears (especially the tips) with cold water. Snap off the woody base of each spear by bending the spear a few times to find a place where it breaks easily. This is usually around the bottom third of the spear and where the woody part starts to turn tender.
  • If desired, scrape off the scales of the spears with a vegetable peeler. This gives the spears a smooth, clean look and is especially beneficial for tough or fat spears.

Can We Say Anything Nice About Asparagus?

That's easy! Asparagus is:

  • High in B vitamins
  • Has anti-oxidants and inflammatory properties
  • Provides probiotics to your digestive system
  • May protect against some forms of cancer

I promised you recipes, and here are a few of my favorites. This first one only takes about 15 minutes including preparation time.

Roasting brings out the sweetness in asparagus spears. For best results, choose spears that are medium in size—no bigger around than your little finger, but not smaller. This recipe is easy enough to prepare for your family, but I wouldn’t be ashamed to serve it for company:

Roasted Asparagus With Wild Mushroom Sauté (Serves 4)

Ingredients

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  • 1 pound asparagus
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • Coarse sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 3 tablespoons butter (do not use margarine)
  • ¾ pound mushrooms (an assortment of crimini, oyster, shiitake, button, or chanterelle), sliced
  • 1 tablespoon minced garlic
  • ½ cup crisp white wine (i.e. Riesling)
  • ½ tsp. dried tarragon leaves
  • Fresh lemon wedges (optional)

Instructions

  1. Preheat oven to 475 degrees F. Trim tough ends from asparagus spears. Toss them with the olive oil and then place in single layer on rimmed baking sheet. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Roast until tender, about 8 to 10 minutes.
  2. While asparagus is roasting, melt butter in large sauté pan over medium heat. Add mushrooms and sauté until they begin to brown—about 6-8 minutes. Add garlic and wine. Cook until wine is absorbed, about 2 minutes. Stir in tarragon.
  3. Divide roasted asparagus spears among 4 plates. Top with mushroom mixture. Serve warm. Squeeze fresh lemon on individual servings as desired.
asparagushow-to-grow-cook-with-and-love-this-beautiful-perennial-plant

Asparagus, Parmesan, and Prosciutto Bundles (Serves 4)

This second recipe is about as simple as it gets. It makes a wonderful appetizer:

Ingredients

  • 12 thin asparagus spears
  • 12 slices of prosciutto
  • About 3 ounces of Parmesan cut into sticks 3 inches long x ½ inch thick

Instructions

Snap the tough ends from each asparagus spear. Cook in boiling, salted water until crisp-tender, about 3 minutes. Immediately plunge into ice water. Drain and pat dry.

Cut each spear in half (one half will contain the tip and the other half will contain the bottom of the spear).

Lay prosciutto slices in single layer on work surface. Place one asparagus tip and one asparagus bottom crosswise near the short end of each slice of prosciutto. Place one cheese stick on top of each pair of asparagus spears. Roll up prosciutto to enclose asparagus and cheese. Cover and keep chilled until ready to serve.

asparagushow-to-grow-cook-with-and-love-this-beautiful-perennial-plant

Asparagus and Mushroom Risotto (Serves 4)

Ingredients

  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 1 1/2 tsp. olive oil
  • 1/2 cup minced onion
  • 1 garlic clove, minced
  • 1/2 pound fresh mushrooms, sliced
  • ½ pound thin asparagus spears, ends removed
  • 1/2 tsp. dried thyme leaves
  • 3/4 cup dry white wine
  • 1 cup arborio rice
  • 1/4 tsp. ground black pepper
  • 3-4 cups chicken, vegetable, or mushroom broth, heated to a simmer
  • 1/4 cup Parmigiano-Reggiano, grated
  • 1/4 cup mascarpone cheese
  • very thinly sliced red radish for garnish (optional)

Instructions

  1. Cut asparagus into 1-inch long pieces. Separate the tip ends from the stem pieces.
  2. In a large frying pan melt 1 tablespoon butter with olive oil over medium heat. Add onion and garlic and cook until onion is soft, about 2 minutes. Stir in mushrooms and asparagus stem pieces; cook until mushrooms are lightly browned and asparagus is crisp-tender (3 to 4 minutes). Stir in thyme.
  3. Add 1/4 cup of the wine and cook until wine is absorbed. Add asparagus tips to the pan. Remove from heat and cover to keep warm. (Asparagus tips are delicate and will cook with the residual heat in the pan).
  4. Melt remaining 1 tablespoon butter in a large heavy saucepan over medium heat. Add rice, pepper, and remaining 1/2 cup white wine. Stir to ensure that rice does not clump together and cook until wine is absorbed. Add 1 cup broth; reduce heat to low, and stir until broth is almost absorbed. Continue to add broth, 1/2 cup at a time and stirring until rice is creamy and tender but still firm in center. This should take about 15 to 18 minutes.
  5. Stir in mushrooms and asparagus. Remove from heat and stir in Parmigiano-Reggiano and mascarpone cheese. Garnish with radish slices if desired.

Wild Rice Asparagus Salad (Serves 4)

Ingredients

  • 2 cups wild rice, uncooked
  • 3 cups sliced fresh asparagus (see note below)
  • 1 cup smoked salmon
  • 1/2 cup dried cranberries
  • 4 cups cooked wild rice
  • 1/4 cup white wine vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
  • 1/2 tsp. salt

Instructions

  1. Cook the wild rice according to package instructions. Rinse with cold water, drain, and set aside.
  2. Combine cooked, cooled wild rice with asparagus, salmon, dried cranberries, and hazelnuts. Mix well.
  3. Prepare the dressing, add to salad, and toss.

Dressing: Combine white wine vinegar, olive oil, Dijon mustard and salt in small mixing bowl.

How to prepare the asparagus for this recipe:

Grasp each asparagus spear with two hands. Bend. It will break where the spear changes from "woody" to "edible." Throw away the woody end. Next use a vegetable peeler to remove the "scales." Start just below the tip and gently scrape to remove the scales and tough skin. Now cut off the tips (which are very tender), and then diagonally slice the stem into 1/4-inch slices.

© 2015 Linda Lum

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