"Europeans of the Renaissance swore by it as an aphrodisiac, and the church banned it from nunneries." — Barbara Kingslover
Ahh, the seductive asparagus spear, considered the caviar of the vegetable world, heralds the arrival of spring as bright green bunches line produce aisles and farmers market stands. Close to botanical perfection, this member of the lily family has but one quirky trait — it perfumes urine with an odiferous pungency as a result of the chemical breakdown of amino acids, specifically asparagusic acid.
Get the best out of these seasonal treasures while they're good and plenty during their peak season from April to June.
On the Stalk Market
While the most popular variety of asparagus is the green-hued, this delicacy comes in shades of purple and white. The latter version is grown beneath mounds of sandy soil to stave off photosynthesis and the formation of the plant's green-pigmented chlorophyll, while purple and pink plants are naturally occurring Italian varieties thanks to the presence of an antioxidant-rich pigment called anthocyanins, and 40 genes (compared to half that in green varieties).
For a milder, less grassy flavor, choose white ones; for a zippier, more bitter taste, go for the purple stalks.
• When picking asparagus, look for firm stalks with smooth unblemished skin, and uniform color.
• Tips should be dry and tightly packed.
• Store for several days in the refrigerator either wrapped in a dampened paper towel, or standing upright in a shallow cup of water.
• For more tender spears, trim stringy, wood-like ends and peel two inches from the bottom with a potato peeler.
• Wine pairing is tricky with asparagus as it contains a sulphur compound that imparts a metallic taste to the drink. Best to serve grassy, aromatic white wines like Italian Prosecco or cool climate ones with herbal notes. Steer clear of astringent wines like reds with high levels of tannins.
Boys of Summer
Being dioecious asparagus has both male and female plants. The female species produces fruit as the flower morphs into little red berries. This energy intense process results in puny, slender female stalks compared to thick, brawny male ones, making the boys the preferred choice of growers.
Asparagus is a potent package of phytonutrients, containing a rich store of vitamins (A, B's including folate, C, E and K) to boost the immune system, calm the nerves, promote healthy blood clotting and pregnancies, and enhance eye, skin and heart health. Packed with assorted minerals from copper, iron, and selenium to potassium, calcium and manganese asparagus balances fluids and stabilizes other metabolic functions, while boosting bone health.
There's more. Its source of inulin makes this mighty spear a digestive aid, while high fiber content keeps the constitution humming. Asparagus also contains a detoxifying substance called glutathione, which clobbers free radicals and lowers cancer risks, while its anti-inflammatory properties keep joints well lubricated, and the brain on its toes.
Finally, this jolly green giant has been known to elevate mood, promote a restful sleep, and even alleviate hangover symptoms.
Grilling to Chilling
Asparagus is just as delightful cold as warm, raw as cooked, enlivening breakfasts, lunches, dinners and snacks. It pairs well with creamy Hollandaise, a balsamic glaze, sweet cream butter, Parmesan shavings, bacon or pancetta. Blend in frittatas, risottos, pasta dishes, crepe fillings, stir-fries or salads for an added crunch and antioxidant oomph. Juice spears with carrots, lemons, cucumbers or tart apples. Or serve solo either raw as crudités with a Greek yoghurt dip, or grilled, steamed, barbecued, sautéed, broiled or wrapped in pancetta or bacon as an impressive appetizer.
•••• Recipe: Bacon-Wrapped Asparagus
Ingredients: 24 asparagus, trimmed; 6 slices thick-cut bacon; 3 tablespoons virgin olive oil; 1/2 teaspoon smoked paprika; chopped scallions
Method: Preheat oven to 400 F. Whisk together oil and seasonings. Set aside. Divide asparagus into 6 bunches. Wrap bacon around each bunch. Place on parchment-lined baking sheet. Drizzle with oil mixture. Bake 15 minutes or until bacon is cooked. Drain. Garnish with chopped scallions.
— Catharine Kaufman can be reached by e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org