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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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