The Elegant Spears

Every spring, I look forward to enjoying the green spears of nutrition, asparagus, at the farmers’ market. Grocery stores carry asparagus all year, but the peak season for great tasting asparagus is from March to June.

Asparagus spears start to lose flavor and moisture as soon as they are harvested. For this reason, imported asparagus, while still good, tends to lack flavor, making homegrown California spring crops most desirable. To ensure flavor, it is important that you cook asparagus as soon as you buy it from the grocery store or market. It is incredibly versatile and a nice, fresh addition to any meal.

The name asparagus comes from the Greek language meaning “sprout” or “shoot.” Cultivation of asparagus—with its tender, succulent, edible shoots—began more than 2,000 years ago in the eastern Mediterranean region. Greeks and Romans prized asparagus for its unique flavor, texture, and alleged medicinal qualities.

Asparagus has also been grown in Syria and Spain since ancient times. In the 16th Century, asparagus gained popularity in France and England. From there, the early colonists brought it to America. King Louis XIV of France was so fond of asparagus that he ordered special greenhouses built so he could enjoy asparagus all year! The graceful spears have always been a sign of elegance, a delicacy only the wealthy could afford.

With a high tolerance for salt and its preference for sandy soils, wild asparagus grows in diverse places such as England, central Wisconsin, Russia, and Poland, and people throughout Europe, Asia, and North America use fresh asparagus in their cuisine. Asparagus was first planted in California during the 1850s. The moderate climate, together with a variety of fertile soil, contributes to the outstanding quality of asparagus grown in California. 70-80 percent of the United States domestic supply of fresh asparagus is grown in California.

Asparagus is also packed with nutrients, low in calories, and very low in sodium. Asparagus is an excellent source of folic acid and a fairly significant source of vitamin C, thiamin, and vitamin B6. Asparagus contains no fat or cholesterol of dietary significance. It is an important source of potassium and many micronutrients. According to the National Cancer Institute, asparagus is the highest tested food containing glutathione, one of the body’s most potent cancer fighters. Additionally, asparagus is high in rutin, which is valuable in strengthening the blood vessels.

Handle asparagus spears like flowers. Trim the ends of the spears, and refrigerate them upright, standing in an inch of water. Cover loosely with plastic or wrap the cut ends in a wet paper towel; store in a plastic bag with the top of the bag left open. Stored this way, fresh asparagus keeps for two to three days refrigerated.
To prepare for cooking, snap the stalks near the base; the point at which the stalk snaps easily is the correct one. Next, give the stalks a rinse in cold water.

Asparagus can be grilled, boiled, or steamed, but my favorite way to enjoy asparagus is to cut the spears at an angle into one-inch lengths. Stir-fry in a teaspoon of butter, stirring constantly for two to three minutes, and serve with fresh ground pepper. The true essence of asparagus is revealed when it is served crisp-tender.

I add these crisp-tender asparagus as garnish for my regular dals. I also mix asparagus into my raita or salad, and substitute for croutons in any soup.

Asparagus Sandwich

16 asparagus spears
4 tablespoons hummus
2 sandwich rolls
4 slices of tomato
4 slices of mozzarella cheese
freshly ground pepper, to taste
Preheat broiler. Snap off tough ends of asparagus and stir-fry for two minutes or until crisp-tender. Keep aside.
Split the bread rolls horizontally into two pieces. Spread hummus on all slices of bread.
Layer each slice with four asparagus spears, a tomato slices, and cheese slice. Place on a baking sheet; broil three minutes or until the cheese melts. Sprinkle with pepper. Serve piping hot as an open sandwich.
Hema’s Hints: For variation, you may replace hummus with a mixture of two spoons of mayonnaise and two spoons of pesto sauce.

Asparagus Pilaf

1 teaspoon oil
1 teaspoon garlic, minced
1 red chili
2 cups asparagus, sliced
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon almonds, chopped and toasted
2 cups brown rice, cooked
2 tablespoons parmesan cheese
Heat oil in a pan and add garlic. Sauté for a minute and then throw in red chilies. Stir for a couple of minutes. Add asparagus, almonds, and vinegar and sauté for four minutes on medium heat.
Add parmesan cheese, and mix it all gently with rice. Serve immediately
Hema’s Hints: You may omit parmesan cheese and add ½ teaspoon salt instead.

Hema Alur-Kundargi is the producer, editor, and host of the television show Indian Vegetarian Gourmet (DVDs now available at the Sunnyvale and Cupertino libraries in Northern California). Visit her website at www.massala.com




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