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Asparagus

Why Eat It
Varieties
Availability
Shopping
Storage
Preparation
Nutrition Chart


Why Eat It

With its uniquely delicate flavor and texture, asparagus is the quintessential "luxury" vegetable. You can enjoy it in any season, when the price goes down: Asparagus contains a good supply of folate (folic acid), as well as some vitamin C and, in green asparagus, some beta-carotene. Asparagus also contains the phytochemical glutathione, which has antioxidant and anticarcinogenic properties.

Varieties

Two varieties, called Martha Washington and Mary Washington, make up the bulk of the commercial asparagus crop in the U.S. White asparagus is not a variety, but simply reflects a cultivation technique in which the stalks are "blanched" (protected from light) by being buried in earth during their growing period. Although occasionally you'll see fresh white asparagus in gourmet shops, in the U.S., white asparagus is most often seen canned.

Availability

Asparagus first appears at markets in February, when the earliest crops are picked in California. Peak months are April and May; in the Midwest and East, the growing season runs from May through July. In fall and winter, some stores carry imported South American asparagus. Frozen asparagus, which tastes quite good and is almost as nutritious as fresh, is available year-round.

Shopping

Asparagus deteriorates rapidly when not kept cold, so buy asparagus where it is kept refrigerated or displayed on trays with the stalks standing in cold water. In outdoor markets, the trays should be shaded from the sun.

The best-quality spears are firm yet tender, with deep green or purplish tips that are closed and compact (with no signs of flowers beginning to form); partially open or wilted tips are the most obvious signs of aging. Stalks should stand straight, be green for most of their length, and have a nicely rounded cross-section; flat or twisted stalks are often tough and stringy.

Some people like thick stalks, some people prefer more slender asparagus, but size is not directly related to quality; still, stalks that measure at least 1/2" in diameter at the base are usually preferable. Asparagus is usually sold in bundles, but if you can buy it loose, select spears of uniform size, which will cook evenly.

When deciding on quantity, remember that asparagus loses about half of its total weight once it's been trimmed and cooked. For a main dish, buy at least a pound of asparagus for two people; as a side dish, a pound serves three to four.

Storage

Keep fresh asparagus cold to preserve its tenderness and as much of its natural sweetness as possible. Wrap the stalk bottoms in a damp paper towel and store in the refrigerator crisper; if you don't have a crisper, put the spears in a plastic bag and store in the coldest part of the refrigerator. It's best to eat asparagus the day you buy it--the flavor can diminish noticeably with each passing day--but it will keep for four to five days if refrigerated.

Preparation

Wash asparagus in cool running water. If the tips have any sand on them, dunk them in and out of water, then rinse thoroughly. Cut or break off the tough bottom ends of the stalks.

Cook asparagus quickly, or it will be unappetizingly limp and discolored and have a bitter taste. The stalks are done when you can pierce the bottom end with the point of a paring knife. After cooking, lift out the spears and let them drain for a minute on a paper towel. If you plan to serve the asparagus cold, plunge it immediately into cold water to stop it from cooking further.

Steaming: One of the best ways to cook asparagus is to steam it upright in a small amount of water; this way, the delicate tips of the stalks will cook at the same rate as the thick bottoms. Use a tall, lidded pot, or a double boiler (invert the upper portion over the lower). There are also special asparagus cookers designed for this purpose. Or, you can lay the stalks flat in a collapsible vegetable steamer placed in a large skillet.

To handle the asparagus easily, tie the spears into bundles of 10 with kitchen string. Add 2" of water to the pot, bring to a rapid boil, then cover. (You can add a clove of garlic, a slice of onion, or a lemon wedge to the water.) Cooking time: five to eight minutes, depending on the thickness of the spears.

Stir-frying: Cut the spears into 1" to 2" pieces for stir-frying. For an attractive look, cut the asparagus pieces on the diagonal. Cooking time: three to five minutes.

Boiling: Bring about 1" of water to a rapid boil in a large skillet; drop in the asparagus, adding the thickest stalks first and letting them cook for a minute before adding the rest. Quickly bring to a second boil and cook, uncovered. Cooking time: three to five minutes, depending on thickness.

Microwaving: Arrange a pound of spears in an oblong microwavable dish, with the tips pointing toward the center. Add 1/4 cup of water and cover. Rotate the dish halfway through the cooking time. Cooking time: five to seven minutes.

Roasting: Trim the stalks, then place them in a baking dish and lightly drizzle with a small amount of olive oil. Roast them uncovered at 500°F. Cooking time: eight to 10 minutes.

Nutrition Chart

Asparagus/1 cup cooked

43
Total fat (g)
0.6
Saturated fat (g)
0.1
Monounsaturated fat (g)
0
Polyunsaturated fat (g)
0.2
Dietary fiber (g)
2.9
5
Carbohydrate (g)
7
Sodium (mg)
20
Thiamin (mg)
0.2
Vitamin C (mg)
19
Folate (mcg)
263


Date Published: 04/19/2005
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