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The rather elegant asparagus in now in season (spring trough to the beginning of summer), so here we look at the varieties, how to buy, store, cook and eat it.
Depicted as an offering on an ancient Egyptian frieze, dated around 3000 BC, asparagus has been cultivated for thousands of years. It was eaten in ancient Syria, Spain and Greece. The Ancient Romans even had an ‘Asparagus’ fleet to transport the popular vegetable.
Asparagus is low in calories, rich in vitamins and minerals and high in fibre. It has a high water content and is known to also be a mild diuretic.
Today, we are familiar with 3 types of asparagus:
- green – grown in flat beds, this is the most commonly available variety. It has the strongest flavour and appears with either thin (more intense flavour) or thick (more tender) stalks.
- purple – first cultivated in Italy, this type is known to have a slightly higher sugar content and be more tender than the green variety
- white – grown under mounds of soil, preventing photosynthesis from taking place, thereby preventing the production of chlorophyll. These are more tender and have a milder flavour
At this time of year, all three varieties are available in farmers markets and shops. When buying, look for firm, straight stalks, as they should not look dried and woody. The buds on the tips should be closed, as once they start opening out, they are no longer fresh and will taste woody. Select uniformity in the thickness of the stalks to ensure even cooking.
Ideally, asparagus should be consumed on the day of purchase for the best flavour, but they can be stored in the fridge: wrapped in damp kitchen paper and in a plastic bag. Alternatively, they can be stored in a cool place, stalks down in a glass of water, and covered with a plastic bag. They should last 2-3 days.
Known to be tender and sweet, asparagus cooks very quickly. The Romans even coined the phrase ‘faster than cooking asparagus’. Shorter cooking times are better to preserve the nutrients. Ideally, cooked asparagus should have tender tips, and their stalks, a slight crunch. First, prepare by washing and trimming the woody ends of the stalks. There are several ways to cook asparagus:
- you can keep it raw – tender stalks can be sliced with a mandolin for a salad
- boil – bring salted water to a boil, add the asparagus and cook for 2-3 minutes
- steam – the most common method in Italy, where a special covered pan is used to keep the asparagus upright in a small amount of water so the stalks boil at a higher temperature and the tips (being more tender) are steamed.
- grill, roast or BBQ – this is more suitable for thicker stalks as they won’t dry out as easily. Brush the asparagus with olive oil before cooking. This will keep them moist and help to caramelise them
Asparagus goes very well with eggs, cheese, creamy sauces, fish and meats.
Perfect as a side dish:
- with hollandaise sauce
- melted butter, salt and pepper
- sliced finely in a salad
- with grated cheese e.g. parmesan/pecorino
- wrapped in cold sliced meats
As a main course:
- with eggs – e.g. poached, in a frittata
- in a risotto
- with pasta
- in a quiche
How do you enjoy asparagus?