Why asparagus should find a place on your family’s dinner tableAsparagus is a perennial garden plant originating in the Eastern Mediterranean region. Wild varieties of asparagus have been discovered in northern and southern Africa, and archeologists believe that it may also have been cultivated in ancient Egypt. Although asparagus has been consumed for more than 2,000 years, it was rediscovered in the 18th century, and since then, several new varieties have been developed.
Asparagus is a young edible shoot, commonly called a spear; the spear rises from an underground stem called a crown, which is capable of producing spears for 15-20 years. Botanically, asparagus is unusual in that there are distinct male and female plants—the male spears are skinny and the females plump. Their flavor depends upon freshness—not the sex—and only the young green shoots or spears should be eaten. If allowed to mature, a beautiful, but inedible fern develops; the asparagus fern is in fact a popular hanging plant.
There are more than 300 varieties of asparagus, only 20 of which are edible. They are divided into three main categories: 1) Green, which is the most common type of asparagus. It is harvested at a height of about 8 inches. 2) White, which is grown in the dark covered with soil to keep it from turning green. White asparagus is harvested as soon as it emerges from the ground. Although more tender than the green variety, it tends to be less flavorful and is also more expensive, since more work is required to grow it. 3) Purple, which is has a fruity flavor and is harvested when only 2 or 3 inches high. The purple pigment adds an added health benefit through its antioxidant properties.
Asparagus is a nutrient-dense, low calorie and low sodium food. It is an excellent source of folate, which helps to protect and repair DNA along with decreasing the risk of developing neural tube defects in infants. Asparagus contains trace amounts of most vitamins and minerals, and contains higher amounts of calcium, potassium, beta-carotene and vitamin K. It also contains several phytochemicals, such as lutein, zeaxanthin, phytosterols and glutathione.
Avoid overcooking asparagus, as this causes it to lose flavor, color and nutrients. Steaming is the best cooking method. This method cooks the asparagus to perfection while preserving the nutrients. Asparagus pairs well with butter, extra virgin olive oil, dark sesame oil, roasted peanut oils, Parmesan, Fontina, eggs, parsley, basil, fresh sage, chervil, mint, tarragon, lemon, orange, capers, ginger, soy, peas, leeks, scallions, artichokes and fava beans.
Two of my favorite asparagus recipes are:
Couscous with Asparagus and Mushrooms
- 1 ½ cups low-sodium chicken broth
- 1 cup whole wheat couscous
- 1 tablespoon unsalted butter, divided
- 1 clove of garlic, peeled and minced
- ¼ cup sliced white mushrooms
- 1 sprig of thyme, oregano, or rosemary
- 1 bunch asparagus, ends trimmed and stalks cut in half
- Salt and pepper
- Extra-virgin olive oil
In a sauce pot, bring broth to a boil. Add the couscous, remove from heat, and cover with a lid. Allow to sit for 5 minutes or until broth is absorbed.
In a large skillet melt 2 teaspoons of the butter over medium heat. Add the garlic and sauté for one minute. Add the mushrooms, herb sprig, and a pinch of salt, sauté for 5 minutes. Add the remaining 1 teaspoon of butter, asparagus, and another pinch of salt, sauté for 5 minutes or until asparagus turns bright green. Remove herb sprig and season with freshly milled pepper.
In a medium mixing bowl, combine the couscous and the mushroom/asparagus mixture, season with salt and pepper, and a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil.
Local Lettuce with Asparagus and Cucumbers
- 1 bunch asparagus, tough ends removed, cut into 1 ½ inch lengths
- 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
- 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 2 or 3 basil leaves, finely chopped
- Salt and freshly ground pepper
- 1 cucumber, peeled, quartered lengthwise, seeded, and cut into 1 ½ inch strips
- 1 head of local lettuce, washed, dried, and cut into 1-inch pieces
Place a steamer basket in a saucepan filled with 1 inch water. Bring to a boil. Add asparagus, cover, and cook until crisp-tender, 3 to 5 minutes. Rinse with cold water to stop the cooking.
In a glass jar, combine vinegar, oil, basil, a pinch of salt and a pinch of pepper. Shake until combined and thickened.
Divide the lettuce, asparagus, and cucumber among serving plates; drizzle with dressing.
Elizabeth Blessing is co-owner of Green B.E.A.N. Delivery, a company that delivers organic produce and natural groceries to Midwest consumers’ doors. She contributes recipes and healthy living tips to the company’s new blog, the Healthy Times. Elizabeth is an accomplished whole foods nutritionist, speaker and curriculum writer. She has a Master of Science in Nutrition from Bastyr University in Seattle, and a Bachelor of Science in Applied Health-Dietetics from Indiana University.