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Fresh Asparagus

Guest Author - Sandy Moyer

Lightly steamed or boiled, fresh asparagus is a tasty, nutritious side dish. In North America, fresh asparagus season begins in March or early April and ends around late June or when the hot summer weather begins. Asparagus, imported mostly from Mexico, Chile or Peru, is now available all year round, but you'll find a good supply of fresh "home-grown " asparagus at reasonable prices in supermarkets this time of year. Most of it comes from Washington, California and Michigan. Depending on where you live, you might also find bunches of fresh asparagus grown in New Jersey, Maryland, Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota or Oregon at your local markets.

Asparagus has a high natural sugar content. Shortly after harvesting, its sugar starts turning to starch. Spears soon lose their snap, moisture and sweet flavor. That's why asparagus that's fresh from the garden has a unique taste that's superior to others. Home gardeners and those who shop for locally grown asparagus consider it a springtime delicacy. Fresh asparagus sold at farm stands and farmer's markets is usually cut, sorted, trimmed, and banded, just as in a supermarket, although it's sometimes sold loose and untrimmed in a box or basket. Garden fresh asparagus is sweet and tender and takes only a few minutes to cook.

In the U.S., green asparagus is by far the most common kind. White asparagus is covered with a mound of loose soil while growing to block sunlight and prevent the production of chlorophyll which would turn it green. White asparagus is very popular in Europe, but only rarely sold here. There's also a sweeter purple variety of asparagus that's quite rare.

Botanically, asparagus is an edible member of the lily family. The name "asparagus" is a Greek word, meaning stalk or shoot. It was first cultivated in ancient Greece, where it was used as an herbal medicine to cure toothaches, prevent bee stings and more. The Romans loved asparagus for its medicinal purposes and culinary qualities. They grew it in their courtyards and in their many conquests, spread it to other nations. King Louis XIV of France built special greenhouses to grow asparagus year' round. During the Renaissance, it was considered an aphrodisiac and banned from the kitchens in most nunneries!

Asparagus has been promoted as a cure for rheumatism and as a natural remedy for blood cleansing. Throughout history, there have been many claims of its healing abilities and medicinal qualities. Medicinal benefits like these have not been proven to be true, but asparagus is a nutrient rich vegetable that does provide great health benefits.

An average serving supplies 60% of the USRDA for Folacin, a B-Vitamin that helps in the duplication of cells for growth and repair of the body and in reproducing blood cells in bone marrow. It's also a rich source of antioxidants - Vitamin C and Vitamin A, and Phytochemicals. Of all fruit and vegetables that have been tested, asparagus has the highest amount of the phytochemical - Glutathione, a potent anticarcinogen and antioxidant. (Phytochemicals, "Phyto" meaning plant, are compounds that slow the development of cancer and heart disease and strengthen the immune system.) Asparagus is also high in potassium, thiamin and fiber. It contains no fat or cholesterol and it's low in sodium and low in calories, with only 25 calories in 6 spears.

When shopping for fresh asparagus, look for crisp, firm, straight green spears with closed, compact tips. Check the bottom of the spears for signs of excessive drying. Avoid spears that have spreading tips and those that are yellowish, soft, or wilted. Choose a bunch with spears that are a uniform diameter, so all will cook in the same amount of time.

Thick or thin? If you've have some experience growing or cooking fresh asparagus, you probably know that this is a vegetable that breaks the rules. Thin does not mean young and tender. Thick does not mean old and tough. While thick or thin spears can be equally tasty when asparagus is very fresh, and spears that are old will be tough, woody and tasteless, regardless of how thick they are, when buying fresh asparagus, choose the thickest spears. When everything else is equal, fat asparagus is more tender than skinny asparagus. Both have firm, fibrous strands outside, but thick spears have more succulent, tender pulp inside.

To decide how much asparagus to buy or how much you'll need for a recipe......

  • About 15 spears (of average thickness) equals about 1 pound of asparagus.
  • 1 pound - trimmed, peeled and cut in small pieces equals about 3 cups.
  • 1 pound makes 2 to 3 servings.

    Cook fresh asparagus as soon as possible for the best flavor. If you don't use it the day you buy it, keep asparagus chilled and moist until you do. When left unrefrigerated, fresh asparagus loses vitamin content along with its flavor and snap. Before refrigerating, remove rubber bands or ties, trim about 1/4" from the bottom of the spears; rinse in cool water to remove dirt and sand. Shake off excess water; wrap a moist white paper towel around the cut end of the stems and place in a plastic bag or a covered food storage container. Store in the refrigerator for up to 4 days. depending on the freshness at time of purchase. If the tips should become slightly wilted during storage, lay them in cool water for about 10 to 15 minutes to rehydrate before using.

    Preparing Asparagus
    Remove the band. Wash the asparagus under cool running water, a few spears at a time, to remove any soil or sand.

    Remove tough areas at the bottom of the spears

  • Use a paring knife to trim about an inch from the lower end of each stem, or....
  • Snap-off the lower ends....
    Hold the top half of a spear in one hand and grasp the bottom half with your other hand. Bend lightly and the tough lower end will snap off where it meets the more tender part of the spear. Although this method sometimes produces more waste, the otherwise discarded ends can be cooked and pureed to use in soup.

    Peeling
    Fresh asparagus can be eaten without peeling, but some people prefer it peeled. Peeling is usually recommended for white asparagus, since it has a tougher, more woody stem. Peeling away the tougher skin near the bottom of the spears will help them cooking more evenly. To peel asparagus use a standard vegetable peeler and peel downward toward the base.

    12-in. Asparagus Platter
    12-in. Asparagus Platter
    Cooking Asparagus
    Very fresh tender asparagus can be eaten raw. Rinse, trim and/or peel as desired. Use in salads or serve chilled with a veggie dip.

    Asparagus can be steamed, boiled, stir-fried, microwaved, roasted, or baked into quiches, casseroles, and other dishes. Fresh asparagus does not require much cooking time. Overcooking causes it to lose nutrients, color and flavor. Like most cooked fresh vegetables, it tastes best when it's lightly steamed and served with a little butter and salt to taste. Asparagus is also good seasoned with chives, parsley, chervil, savory, or tarragon. Add a little lemon juice; top it with regular, low fat, or fat free yogurt or sour cream; or add a small amount of very lightly browned slivered almonds... no recipes required. For those who want more variety, see the list of asparagus recipes below.

    To Steam Asparagus
    Steaming in an upright position is the ideal cooking method, since it allows the spears to cook evenly. The tougher bottom of the spears can cook thoroughly in boiling water while thinner delicate tips are lightly steamed. Wash, trim, and peel as desired. then tie spears together with a string or a strip of heavy aluminum foil. Add about 2" of water to a deep, narrow cooking vessel such as a percolator. There are also tall, narrow pots made especially for steaming asparagus, with an inner basket to hold it upright while steaming.
    Bring the water to a rapid boil. Add the asparagus, standing the spears upright with the lower end of the spears in the water. Cover the pot and cook until the asparagus is tender, about 6 to 8 minutes.

    Boil Asparagus
    Lay trimmed asparagus spears in a large skillet with 1" to 1-1/2" of water. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and cook gently, uncovered, over low heat for about 5 to 7 minutes. Season and serve.

    Stir-Fry Asparagus
    Slice asparagus spears diagonally into 1/2" slices, leaving tips whole. Heat 1-1/2 to 2 tablespoons vegetable oil in a wok or large skillet. Adjust heat to medium high; add cut asparagus; cook, stirring constantly for 4 to 5 minutes, or until tender-crisp.

    Cook Asparagus in a Microwave Oven
    Arrange asparagus spears around a microwave safe baking dish, as spokes on a wheel, with tips touching or overlapping in the center of the dish. Add water, about 1/4 to 1/3 cup, then cover with a vented lid, a domed plastic cover made for the microwave, or plastic wrap, turning back a small area along the edge for steam to vent. Microwave on full power for 4 to 7 minutes for about 1 pound of fresh asparagus spears; 3 to 5 minutes if cut in small pieces. Stop to stir or turn about halfway through cooking time. Remove from the microwave oven at the end of the cooking time. Season, then cover and let stand for 3 to 4 minutes before serving.

    12-in. Nonstick Grilling Wok
    Grill Asparagus
    For grilling you'll need fairly thick spears. Place wooden skewers through several spears, side by side, to make a rack of asparagus. Place on top of the grids and grill for the suggested time. Brush with herbed butter when the grilling is almost complete. Grilling woks or baskets, like the one on the right, also work well with asparagus.

    Roast Asparagus
    Asparagus can also be roasted. Preheat oven to 450ș. Arrange spears in a shallow pan with a little olive oil. It takes less then 10 minutes until spears are tender-crisp; check for desired tenderness after about 5 minutes.

    Preserving Asparagus

    Freezing
    Fresh asparagus can be frozen for later use. If properly frozen soon after picking, asparagus retains most of its nutrients. Wash fresh tender spears and trim bottom ends. Cut spears into lengths that will fit into freezer bags or containers. Sort according to thickness.

    Asparagus must be blanched before it's frozen. To blanch asparagus, immerse thin spears in boiling water for 2 minutes, medium spears for 3 minutes and thick spears for 5 minutes. As soon as spears are removed from boiling water, cool quickly by immersing in ice water for about 5 minutes. Drain, then pack into freezer bags or freezer containers, leaving no headspace. Seal, label, and freeze . Asparagus can be frozen for up to 8 or 9 months. Don't defrost frozen asparagus before cooking. Keep it frozen until you're ready to cook it. If frozen asparagus thaws, it must be cooked right away. Never refreeze it.

    Home- Canning
    Canning will destroy some of the flavor, but it is an acceptable means of preserving fresh asparagus. It must be canned using a pressure canner.

    Wash and trim spears. They may be canned as whole spears or cut into pieces. Boil asparagus for about 3 minutes, then pack in canning jars while still hot. Add salt, 1 teaspoon for quarts and 1/2 teaspoon salt for pints. Add boiling water to jars, allowing 1" head space. Place caps on jars and place jars in a pressure canner. Process quarts for 30 minutes Process at 10 pounds of pressure - quarts for 30 minutes and pints for 25 minutes. Like all canned foods, home-canned asparagus should be stored in a cool, dry place and used within a year.


    Asparagus Recipes

    Asparagus Pasta Salad

    Asparagus Citrus Salad Recipe

    Chicken Breasts with Asparagus

    Easy, Cheesy Crockpot Asparagus

    Asparagus Quiche

    Ham and Asparagus Quiche

    Cream of Asparagus Soup

    Baked Asparagus with Cheese

    Asparagus Vinaigrette

    Asparagus with Peppers

    Ham & Asparagus Quiche

    Garlic Baked Asparagus

    Grilled Asparagus


    Asparagus Recipe Links


    Recipes from the California Asparagus Commission

    Recipes from the Washington Asparagus Commission

    Recipes from "The Asparagus Farm Recipe Book"

    Recipes from the Michigan Asparagus Advisory Board

    Asparagus Recipes from Cooking.com

    RSVP International 9-in. Asparagus Steamer

    RSVP International 9-in. Asparagus Steamer
    I highly recommend this asparagus cooker! It's excellent for making perfect asparagus. The stems cook at a higher heat than the tips, cooking the spears evenly from top to bottom. This stainless steel steamer is also great for cooking other vegetables... like just a few ears of corn, carrots, yams, etc.


    The Asparagus Festival Cookbook
    To celebrate this versatile vegetable, Stockton, California launched its first three-day Asparagus Festival in 1986 and has attracted thousands of asparagus aficionados during the fourth weekend in April ever since. The highlight of the festival is the big-top tent, affectionately known as Asparagus Alley, where gourmet favorites featuring this edible cousin to the lily are prepared and served up to the discerning crowds. The Asparagus Festival Cookbook highlights the prize-winning recipes from cook-offs past and present.
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    Content copyright © 2014 by Sandy Moyer. All rights reserved.
    This content was written by Sandy Moyer. If you wish to use this content in any manner, you need written permission. Contact Allyson Elizabeth DŽAngelo for details.

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