Hi there. My name is Alexander – you know, as in Alexander the Great, or Alexander Graham Bell – and I am proud to say, I’m an asparagus. It’s hard to believe that anyone with as much class as me could possibly be related to the lowly onion or leek, but I’m afraid it’s true (just don’t tell anyone). On the other hand, I also happen to be a member of the lily family – that’s more like it.
Like most plants (well, all plants, actually), I have roots. It’s just that mine go especially deep, historically speaking. People have been enjoying us for over 2,000 years. Some archeologists claim we first sprouted up in the Eastern Mediterranean region, others contend we got our start in Egypt. Have you ever tried getting scientists to agree on anything? Honestly, it’s like herding cats. Which Egyptians held sacred. But I digress.
I do know we were considered to have both sacred and aphrodisiacal powers (talk about a one-two punch!) by the ancient Greeks. Hippocrates, a doctor at least as famous as Zhivago and Oz, used asparagus to treat diarrhea and urethra pain. Then the Romans came on the scene. Less concerned about healing than the brainy Greeks, more focused on la dolce vita, they were far more into “I don’t care what it’s good for – how does it taste? Since we are, of course, absolutely delicious, we quickly became a popular appetizer and a side dish with fish meals (actually I prefer to think of us as having been the main course, with fish on the side – perspective is everything, even for vegetables).
Europe during the Middle Ages dropped the ol’ asparagus ball (along with pretty much every other ball, for that matter), while Middle Eastern cooks continued to enjoy us. By the early 16th century, we had clawed our way back onto the royal menus in much of Europe, where we were now considered an exotic delicacy. During the reign of asparagus-mad Louis XIV, we were cultivated in France, so the king could have as much of us as he wanted, whenever he wanted.
It wasn’t until the 18th century that “ordinary” people were able to purchase us. As people began to learn to read, cookbooks became popular – and there we were, right up near the front, with apples and artichokes.
There are lots of varieties of asparagus out there today, including my wild and crazy cousins from the Himalayan foothills of India, known as Shatavari, often used to help with digestive problems. China and Peru are hotbeds of asparagus cultivation, producing over 700,000 tons of us a year. The U.S. and Mexico also spread the asparagus love, producing about 200,000 tons annually.
If you’ve ever had a plate of perfectly steamed asparagus, lightly buttered and salted, then you know we are, beyond the shadow of any doubt, the most delectable of all vegetables.
That’s right, we’re not only completely delicious – we’re also really, really good for you.
Where to begin? Well, I, along with all those other asparagus out there, happen to be low in both calories and sodium. We’re also an excellent source of vitamin B6, calcium, magnesium, and zinc. We’re also no slouches when it comes to dietary fiber (to the tune of about three grams per cup, including about two grams of insoluble fiber and one gram of soluble fiber), and protein (about four-five grams per cup). I’m sure you already knew this, but just in case, I should point out that fiber and protein help stabilize your digestion – they help keep food moving through you at the desirable rate. By contrast, and again I’m certain you know this, but you can never repeat important stuff often enough, I’m sure you agree, too much fat can slow down your digestion rate, and too much sugar or simple starch can speed it up. That’s why we’ve been right there to help people with digestive problems since Hippocrates hung his shingle, back in the day.
So, what else do we have to offer? Well, there’s vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin E, vitamin K, thiamin, riboflavin, rutin, niacin, folic acid, iron, phosphorus, potassium, copper, manganese, and selenium (whew, I’m running out of breath). As if all that wasn’t enough, we store something called phytonutrients in our roots and shoots, one type in particular, called saponins. These little guys have repeatedly been shown to have anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer properties, and their intake has also been associated with improved blood pressure, improved blood sugar regulation, and better control of blood fat levels. Between all the anti-inflammatory and antioxidant nutrients stuffed into each of us, we’re a good choice for folks struggling with issues like type 2 diabetes and heart disease. Hey, when you’ve got some nice asparagus in the fridge, who needs a health food store? (calm down, calm down, I’m only kidding! ).
OK, so I’m delicious, and really good for you (imagine if we could describe all our relationships like that – and I say to myself, what a wonderful world…!). What else can I add? Well, like you humans, there are different kinds of asparagus. In addition to the stunningly handsome green varieties you’re probably most familiar with (OK, OK, yes, I’m green and proud), there are also white asparagus. The poor dears are grown entirely underground, to inhibit their development of chlorophyll — the stuff that makes me green. We also have some cute little purple cousins. They’re tiny, usually not more than two or three inches tall – they have a light, almost fruity taste (and look great on a nice, white plate!).
Whoa, speaking of plates, talk is cheap, and you must be getting hungry! I’ve put together a few fun recipes, so you can try us out for yourselves. And when selecting us, remember that we’re better when we’re young. Once we get to “a certain age,” our shoots and stems become woody. That’s it for now – have fun with the recipes, and bon appetit!
CREAM OF ASPARAGUS SOUP
1/2 regular onion or 6 green onions, chopped
1 Tbsp (15mL) butter
1 large potato, diced
2 Cups (500mL) chicken broth
1 to 1 1/2 pounds of fresh asparagus, peeled and chopped, woody stems removed
4 stalks of celery, chopped
salt and pepper to taste
cream or milk
Sauté onions in butter. Add potatoes and broth. Simmer it all together until the potato is soft. Add asparagus and celery; cook for approximately 10 minutes. Salt and pepper to taste. Purée the soup, adding cream or milk until you reach the desired consistency.
ASPARAGUS WITH ORANGE BUTTER SAUCE
1/3 Cup (80mL) butter
2 Tbsp (30mL) grated orange rind
1/4 Cup (60mL) orange juice
1 1/2 pounds fresh asparagus
peeled orange slices
Combine butter, orange rind, and juice in a saucepan. Bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer until the mixture is reduced by half and slightly thickened, stirring occasionally. Set the sauce aside and keep it warm. Snap off the tough ends of the asparagus. Cook asparagus, covered, in a small amount of boiling water for 6-8 minutes or until tender but still a touch crisp. Drain well. Arrange on a serving plate, then pour the orange sauce over the asparagus. Garnish with orange slices if desired.
PASTA WITH ASPARAGUS AND WHITE WINE SAUCE
10 asparagus stalks, ends removed
1 Tbsp (15mL) olive oil, divided
1/2 tsp (2mL) salt, divided
12 ounces (340 grams) dry fettuccine
1 Cup (250mL) dry white wine
3 shallots, chopped
1 ½ (375mL) whipping cream
1/3 cup (80mL) plus 2 Tbsp (30mL) grated Parmesan cheese, divided
1/8 tsp (.5mL) cayenne pepper
4 Tbsp (60mL) butter
1 Tbsp (15mL) minced chives (optional)
1 Tbsp (15mL) minced mint (optional)
Preheat oven to 425ºF.
Remove the tougher ends of the asparagus by holding each end of the stalk and bending. The asparagus spear will break naturally where the toughness ends. Place the asparagus stalks in a baking pan large enough to hold them in one layer, and gently rub them with 1/2 Tbsp (7.5mL) olive oil. Sprinkle 1/4 tsp (1mL) of salt over the asparagus, and bake in a preheated oven for 12 to 15 minutes, depending upon the thickness of the stalks. When cool enough to handle, cut into 1/2-inch pieces.
In a generous amount of salted boiling water, cook the fettuccine until al dente (not quite soft). Drain, place in a bowl and toss with ½ Tbsp (7.5mL) olive oil.
Pour the wine into a large skillet or pan. Add shallots. Cook over medium heat until the wine is reduced to one half its original volume. Wash the lemons, rinse and dry. Add grated rind and juice from 2 lemons to the wine. Simmer for 2 minutes. Add the cream.
Bring to a boil, then lower the heat and add 1/3 Cup (80mL) Parmesan cheese, ¼ tsp (1mL) salt and the cayenne pepper. Simmer slowly, whisking constantly, about 4 minutes, or until the sauce begins to thicken. Cut the cold butter into small pieces and add to the sauce, cooking it for about 1 minute. Add asparagus, pasta and 2 Tbsp (30mL) of cheese. Toss until the pasta is thoroughly coated with the sauce and heated through.
ASPARAGUS COCONUT CURRY
1 can coconut milk
1 tsp (5mL) to 2 Tbsp (30mL) curry paste
asparagus – ¾ Cup (180mL) per person
1 can peaches, drained
chicken breast, cubed – 1 breast per person
Pour ½ of coconut milk into large skillet or wok, heat on medium heat (medium low if using gas). Mix in curry paste, 1 tsp at a time until you reach your desired intensity of flavour. Add remaining coconut milk. Add chicken and cook app. 7 minutes. Add asparagus and cook until crunchy, app. 5 – 7 minutes. Add drained peaches and stir until well mixed.Pour coconut curry mixture over rice. Takes about 30 minutes – easy to experiment with different vegetables and meats.
Sandie Zobell – Chestermere, Alberta
Asparagus shoots are a good source of vitamin K, which contributes to good bone health by promoting osteotrophic (bone formation) activity. Adequate vitamin K helps in limiting neuronal damage in the brain, thus, has an established role in the treatment of patients suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.
Asparagus is a very low-calorie vegetable. 100 g fresh asparagus spears contain only 20 calories – more calories are burned in digesting asparagus than are gained by eating eat, causing it to be included among the so-called “negative calorie vegetables.”
Asparagus is high in minerals, especially copper and iron. It also includes small amounts of calcium, potassium, manganese, and phosphorus.
Fresh asparagus spears are good source of antioxidants such as lutein, zeaxanthin, carotenes, and crypto-xanthins. Together, these flavonoid compounds help remove harmful oxidant free radicals from the body, and protect it from possible cancer, neuro-degenerative diseases, and viral infections.