Everything You Wanted To Know (or Not) About: Asparagus

Monday, March 29, 2010

[photo from elements4health.com]
Definitely one of my top 3 favorite vegetables, asparagus is now coming into the height of its season as we step into the full glory of spring.
Asparagus comes from a plant of the lily family, and the spears we all know and love are actually the spears that grow from a crown that's planted in mid-winter that shoots up in spring. The first spears in spring are characteristically thinner and longer, and as the season progresses into summer the spears become thicker and meatier.
Asparagus is one of those "ancient" vegetables. In fact the very name "asparagus" probably comes from the Greek aspharagos, meaning "sprout" or "shoot." It's mentioned in Apicius's De re coquinaria, the first comprehensive cookbook written by Romans in the 5th century AD. It was widely cultivated by the Romans, Greeks and even Egyptians, and although experiencing a period of inactivity during the Middle Ages, regained its popularity in the 17th century Europe that has remained strong to this day.
Most of us know asparagus as the bright green spear, but there are also yellow asparagus (also called "white spears") and even purple ones. Green asparagus grows aplenty in maritime climates, which made it a very popular vegetable from Ireland down the coasts of Western Europe into Spain and even into Germany. The white variation (also called spargel) is popular in Germany, France, Belgium and Netherlands. The white color is achieved by depriving the spears sunlight; they are routinely covered by soil throughout their growth thereby depriving them of sunlight so that photosynthesis cannot occur and therefore turn green. White asparagus is much sweeter in taste. Italy began cultivating a purple variety but many don't prefer it as it's high in sugar and lower in nutritional value. Asparagus has been widely cultivated for centuries throughout most of Europe, Northern Africa and parts of Asia. In fact Asia is the highest producer in the world today of asparagus.
Asparagus is a wonderfully nutritious vegetable, as it's high in various vitamins (B6, A, C, E, K) and minerals, as well as being a great source of fiber and folic acid. It's low in sodium and calories as well, which makes it a great vegetable if you're watching your weight. It is not as widely known that asparagus possesses medicinal qualities as well, in larger quantities acting like a laxative and diuretic.
But its delicate flavor is what sets it apart. Asparagus is both tender and hardy at the same time, which yields itself to various cooking techniques. It can be boiled, roasted, grilled, and even pickled. It compliments any protein and can stand on its own as a dish. Because of its shape, it can be wrapped with other foods like thinly sliced prosciutto or smoked salmon, or even cheese. It can also be cut up into smaller pieces for salads or pastas, or can be left long and picked up as a finger food. Its underlying lemony-woodsy flavor yields itself nicely with fresh lemon and herbs as well as more formidable flavors like garlic and ginger. The versatility of asparagus has truly made it a universal ingredient, taking forms and shapes within the world's different cuisines.
But for me personally, my favorite way to prepare asparagus is to simply roast it with some good salt and pepper and olive oil. It brings out the deep underlying flavors of the asparagus and the roasting process gives a nice crunchy caramelized outside with a soft and concentrated sweet inside. A simple aioli on the side for dipping and you have a delicious appetizer or side dish.
Roasted Asparagus with Quick Garlic "Aioli"
1 bunch asparagus
extra virgin olive oil
good sea salt (recommended: Fleur de Sel)
freshly ground black pepper
2 Tbsp mayo
1 large (or 2 small) garlic cloves, minced
1 tsp freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 tsp lemon zest
1/2 tsp fresh thyme leaves
Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
Take one of the asparagus spears and hold one end in each hand. Bend the spear to snap it and you'll find it will snap on its own. This point where it breaks is the natural border between the tender part and tougher stem. Line this spear back up to the others and cut the bottoms off to match the first spear. You now have tender asparagus spears.
Toss the spears in some olive oil (about 2-3 tablespoons depending on how large your asparagus spears are) to coat well. Spread them out on a baking sheet and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Roast in oven 10-15 minutes or until tender and slightly caramelized. You'll want to shake the pan once halfway between cooking to ensure even caramelizing.
While the asparagus cooks, make the "aioli." Combine the mayo, garlic, lemon juice and zest, thyme, and a pinch of salt and pepper and mix well.
My Notes:
I use quotations for aioli because true aioli is made from egg yolk and oil mixed very slowly together to make a fresh mayonnaise. You can certainly do this (and add the garlic more as a paste) which would produce amazing results. But this is for a quick dipping sauce so I substitute with a good quality store-bought mayo. I like Best/Hellman's.
It is imperative to use fresh lemon for the zest and juice; never use the bottled juice!
The cooking time will vary depending on how thin or thick your asparagus are. If you're using the first asparagus of spring (the very thin spears), you'll want to reduce your cooking time even more to around 7 minutes. If you're using fresh asparagus that's a half an inch or more in diameter, you'll have to cook them longer.
This recipe can be easily doubled or tripled.

1 comment:

candice said...

hee hee - I was looking at the recipe - interesting it is related to the lily <3 and we LOVE asparagus! and our lily girl :) Rogers is behind me in the kitchen whipping up some lunch and he glanced at what I was reading and he said, "tell her all you need is some salt, pepper and canola oil. that's how you do it!" then I read through the blog and found that the way you like it is with salt, pepper and olive oil... we thought it was funny. great minds and chefs think alike ;)