The Real Dirt on Asparagus
After the long winter, one of the first things that gets me excited
– one of the first things I look for – is asparagus.
It’s the first sign to me that winter is really over and we’re
getting into the Good times. My Grandmother Gertie would always
start talking about asparagus in March and April. “There’s
gonna be asparagus soon,” she’d say. It created a sense
of anticipation that is really a wonderful thing. Now we’re
used to having everything all the time. But that sense of anticipation
is important, because it makes us treasure the moment. After that
first time, it never tasted quite the same the rest of the year
– and that’s OK. Because it makes it almost magical.
It seems when people think of asparagus, they usually think of
things like “fresh,” “green,” and “young.”
Actually, asparagus is one o-o-o-o-ld vegetable. It’s a member
of the lily family and it grows wild in many places, but at least
2,000 and maybe 5,000 years ago, people had learned to love this
tasty treat. The Greeks gave it its current name, which means stalk,
or shoot. The Greeks and Romans thought asparagus had some medicinal
properties. The Romans loved it so much they found a way to freeze
it – carrying it to the Alps to be buried in snow –
and then went back and got it for their annual Feast of Epicurus,
celebrating a philosopher who loved good food. For centuries asparagus
was considered the epitome of elegant cuisine.
As their empire expanded, the Romans took asparagus with them into
Europe. But when the empire fell, asparagus was almost forgotten.
Fortunately, some far-sighted monks preserved it in their cloister
gardens. (These gardens were the forerunners of the modern “potager,”
or kitchen garden.)
Asparagus is not only good, it’s good for you – high
in folic acid, potassium, fiber, vitamins A, C, and B6. It has no
fat, no cholesterol, and it’s low in sodium.
Asparagus is easy to grow, once it’s established –
a good bed can produce for up to 15 years! – but it takes
some work to get it planted properly. Year-old “crowns”
are planted in trenches liberally dug with organic material. The
trenches are filled in gradually as the shoots grow. Asparagus can’t
be harvested until the plants mature, which takes three years. In
the third year, it can be harvested for only a month, then the plants
must be left alone again to continue developing strong root systems.
After that, asparagus is an abundant producer – some mature
beds can harvested every 24 hours.
Luckily for most of us, asparagus is widely available at groceries
and farmers markets. It’s when it’s prepared simply
– boiled, steamed or microwaved for 6-7 minutes – and
served with butter, or, more extravagantly, with hollandaise sauce.
But it also lends itself to more elaborate preparations and dishes.
At Gertrude’s, we
serve marinated, sautéed salmon fillets with rice pilaf and
asparagus in a lemon beurre blanc sauce, and it’s one of our
most popular dishes. See this month’s Coastal
Kitchen recipes for a sturdy but delicately flavored Crab
and Asparagus Soup.
You know there’s another reason asparagus is special this
time of year. Gertie’s mother was a “healer.”
She was a midwife, but everyone came to her when they were feeling
poorly. She believed that asparagus cleaned your blood from the
winter. So when the first asparagus shows up, it’s time not
just for spring house cleaning, but for spring body cleaning as
well. Eat up!
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