Vegetable of the Month: Asparagus
Lavender-tipped spears emerging regally from a subterranean crown of roots, asparagus heralds the coming bounty of spring and summer produce. Praised by Proust, painted by Manet, and known as the “food of kings,” asparagus has been prized since Ancient Greek and Roman times for its delicate, unique flavor, tender succulence, and health and medicinal properties.
Background & History
Asparagus, once classified as a member of the lily family, now as Asparagaceae, is native to the eastern Mediterranean and Asia Minor regions, where the Greeks and Romans enjoyed the edible shoots as a delicacy and also believed it to help prevent bee stings and relieve toothaches. Asparagus cultivation began more than 2,000 years ago in this region, and it eventually found its way northward to Versailles, where King Louis XIV of France had it grown in special greenhouses so he could enjoy it all year round.
In the United States, asparagus was first grown in New England, but today, the leading asparagus-producing state is California, followed by Michigan and Washington. Although most bountiful from March to June, fresh California asparagus is available seven months out of the year, and most of the harvest is sold fresh at markets; less than 1% of the California crop is processed.
Characteristics & Types
The familiar green asparagus–the only type grown in California–is most commonly of the UC157 or De Paoli varieties. White asparagus, which is particularly revered in France, owes its achromatism to lack of exposure to sunlight; the stalks are harvested while still underground, before the tips break the surface, which would stimulate chlorophyll production and turn the stalks green. Asparagus also comes in a unique purple variety, violetta di Albenga, so named for its color and Italian region of origin.
Whatever the hue, asparagus provides a dense source of nutrients. Asparagus is high in folic acid, vitamins B6, C, and K, and thiamin, while being low in both calories and sodium. Also an important source of potassium and many micronutrients, it is a notable source of gluathione, a potent cancer fighter, and rutin, valuable for strengthening blood vessels.
Tips & How to Enjoy
When selecting asparagus at the farmers’ market, look for bright green, long, blemish-free spears with closed, compact tips. The tenderness of the spears relates to both color (the greener, the better) and diameter (the thicker, the better). Asparagus keep best in cool, moist conditions, and can stay fresher longer if bundles are placed upright in an inch of water.
Asparagus can be enjoyed raw, sautéed, blanched, fried, roasted, pickled, barbecued, steamed, stir-fried, or even microwaved. If cooking, the key is to keep it light, as the saying attributed the Roman Emperor Augustus, velocius quam asparagi coquantur–faster than you can cook asparagus–attests.
You can try the noble asparagus in twenty delectable recipes from the New York Times. Or, just pick some fresh stalks of the “food of kings” from the Green Family Farms stand at the Santa Monica Farmers’ Market and enjoy a royal snack with a bowl of rich hummus.
Asparagus from Green Family Farms. Pictured is Juan Mendoza.
You can read more about asparagus here: