Friday, May 11, 2012

Asparagus for the Curious

Can you name the vegetable that is a member of the lily family and takes 3 years before harvesting?  Under ideal conditions, these stalks can grow 7 to 10 inches in twenty-four hours.  Give up?  Asparagus.
A prized springtime delicacy, asparagus spears start from a crown planted in sandy soil, taking several years to develop a sturdy root system. The spears break through the surface during the spring and early summer months and grow vigorously for weeks, depending upon the region and growing season.
Asparagus is a nutrient-dense food that contains folic acid, potassium, fiber, vitamin B6, vitamins A and C and thiamin. An average serving of five spears has just 20 calories.  A one pound bunch of asparagus, about 12-15 spears typically serves 2 to 4 people. The number of servings may vary, depending on size and menu selection as side dish or main course.
When choosing fresh asparagus, look for firm spears with compact, closed tips. Select bright green spears that are similar in size so they cook evenly.
Some cooks and gardeners prefer larger asparagus spears, while others reach for slim, slender stalks. It’s a matter of personal preference. Select the size asparagus which works for your cooking method. Thicker spears are ideal for barbecuing on the grill or roasting in the oven. Thinner spears can be cut on an angle and added to a vegetable stir fry recipe.
Asparagus spears have a natural breaking point. To trim, simply hold the woody stem end in one hand, with the pointed tip in the other. Gently bend until the spear snaps. Save the woody ends to make soup or compost instead. If you like, take a vegetable peeler and pare a few peelings off the end. It’s optional.
To store fresh asparagus, wrap a dampened paper towel around the stems, place in a plastic produce bag and refrigerate in the produce drawer.  A bunch of spears may also be refrigerated standing upright in a pan of an inch or so of cold water. For maximum taste and quality, fresh asparagus is best when prepared and eaten within two to three days.

Basic Roasted Asparagus
1 pound medium green asparagus, woody ends snapped off at natural breaking point
1 tablespoon olive oil
Lemon slices

Preheat oven to 400°F.  Place asparagus on rimmed baking sheet and drizzle with oil. Gently toss until coated; sprinkle with a pinch of salt. Roast 10 to 15 minutes, turning occasionally, until done to your likeness. Serve with baked or broiled tilapia. Add a whole grain like hot cooked brown rice and call it dinner.

For a change-of-pace pasta topping, cut asparagus on an angle into 2-inch pieces. Mix in 2 or 3 cloves of chopped fresh garlic, according to your family’s taste. Toss in a cupful of grape tomatoes and a pinch of dried basil, and roast. Watch the cooking time, as it may take less due to the smaller size of vegetables.

Should there be any leftover asparagus, toss cut pieces into a whole grain or mixed greens salad. For a burst of flavor, squeeze a wedge of fresh lemon over the asparagus and top with shredded or grated Parmesan cheese. Tuck a few roasted asparagus spears into your next vegetable wrap.

Snip some fresh basil, dill or lemon thyme growing near your back door or kitchen window to season asparagus. For a cool dish, top cooked asparagus with crumbled feta cheese, a splash of olive oil and chopped mint, or try a classic of chopped hard-boiled egg.

If there are leftover roasted potatoes from Sunday dinner, combine them with roasted asparagus pieces, diced red bell pepper and chopped red onion, and toss with a light herb vinaigrette for an easy potato-asparagus salad.

This recipe for frittata, an Italian open-faced omelet, makes use of leftover asparagus.  Perfect for dinner, lunch or brunch, it’s quick and easy—about 10 minutes to prepare and 10 minutes to cook. Makes 6 servings.

Asparagus Frittata

6 large eggs, beaten
1 tablespoon grated Parmesan
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
Pinch of salt
1 teaspoon olive or canola oil
1/2 cup chopped roasted asparagus
1 tablespoon chopped parsley leaves
Optional:  1/2 cup cooked, diced ham or leftover cooked sausage

1. Preheat oven to 400°F.
2. In medium bowl, with a fork, mix together eggs, Parmesan, pepper and salt.
3. Heat oil in a large oven-safe skillet (cast iron works well) over medium high heat.
4. Add asparagus (and ham or sausage, if using) to skillet and cook for 2 to 3 minutes.
5. Pour egg mixture over asparagus and stir with heatproof rubber spatula. Cook for 4 to 5 minutes or until egg mixture has set on the bottom and edges.
6. Using a potholder, place skillet into oven and bake for 3 to 5 minutes, until lightly browned and fluffy and eggs are thoroughly cooked. Remove hot skillet from oven and let sit for 2 minutes. Cut into 6 servings, sprinkle with parsley and serve right away.

The next time you entice your family to try asparagus, tell them they’re about to eat an ancient vegetable that was first cultivated about 2,500 years in Greece.  Asparagus arrived in the United States centuries later, around the 1870's.  But don’t wait… create your own family mealtime history and cook up some asparagus for dinner tonight.

Bittman, Mark. How to Cooking Everything: Vegetarian. Wiley Publishing: New Jersey, 2007.
California Asparagus Commission.
Michigan Asparagus Advisory Board.
Schneider, Elizabeth. Vegetables from Amaranth to Zucchini: The Essential Reference
Harper Collins: New York, 2001.

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