Friday, June 4, 2010

Focus: ASPARAGUS (asparagus officialis)

I just finished reading about asparagus in nine books and on about four or five websites and I have come to two main conclusions.  First, asparagus is special.  It is widely considered a delicacy, an elegant and extravagant vegetable which has been highly prized for millennia throughout the world.

Second, the U.S. of A. is not even a bit player in the world asparagus game.  As a nation, we have become dependent on foreign asparagus, mostly from Mexico and Peru.   As a planet, the world depends almost totally on China to grow asparagus.  I've included a few more stats below - at the end of this Q and A.  I don't know about you, but I am glad that we still grow a little asparagus in Minnesota.  I don't think we should forget how to do it.

1.  Is asparagus nutritious?
Yes.  One 5.3 ounce serving supplies 60% of the recommended daily allowance (RDA) of folacin, 3 grams of fiber, 6% RDA of protein, 20% RDA of vitamin C and significant amounts of vitamin A, B6, potassium and zinc.  There are only 35 calories in a one cup serving.  For complete nutritional facts, see the Michigan Asparagus Board website.  I checked out the California site too, but I think you will like the Michigan one better.  Solid, no frills, clean design - a no nonsense Midwestern website.

2. What is the best way to cook asparagus?
The most important thing to remember is to not overcook asparagus.  You want it tender crisp, not mushy.  The simplest way is to bring water to a boil in a pan large enough for the stalks to fit lying down.  (Or chop the asparagus into pieces and use a smaller pan.)  Add stalks to boiling water and boil, uncovered to preserve maximum color, for about 3-6 minutes, depending on how fat or thin the stalks or pieces are or how crisp you like it.  Many books suggest cooking the stalks upright in a few inches of boiling water so the tips just steam and do not overcook.  Generally speaking I have not found that method to be worth the extra trouble.

I also think roasting is an excellent way to cook asparagus.  Using no more than 1T olive oil per pound, roll stalks in oil on a baking sheet until very lightly covered.  Roast at 425 degrees until tender - about 5-10 minutes depending on size and your tastes.  For a great taste experience, sprinkle on a little crushed anise seed before roasting.  Asparagus goes well with this licorice like flavor.  Molly Katzen, a renowned cookbook author, says "Asparagus has a passionate affinity for tarragon".  Tarragon, anise - either way.  Those flavors are great with asparagus.

For more recipes from the Michigan asparagus people, see the website link above.  You can download a nice pdf file with cooking instructions and recipes like a frittata or chicken vegetable stir fry.

3.  When is asparagus in season?
Asparagus is now available almost year-round in the U.S., thanks to imports and cold storage.  Here in Minnesota the season lasts about 6-7 weeks - from late April or early May to early or mid June.  Much depends on the weather.  The warmer the weather the faster the asparagus will grow and it must be harvested once it is ready.  Under the right weather conditions, an asparagus stalk can grow as much as 10 inches in 24 hours!  And it is true that asparagus tastes best if it is eaten in season and is really fresh, which more than likely means local.   One of the reasons asparagus is considered so special is that is does have a relatively short season.  I eat a lot of it this time of year and then I am happy to wait until next year for another round of asparagus feasting.

4.  Which are better - fat or skinny spears?
This is a matter of personal taste.  Either can be quite tender.  You may have read somewhere that you should avoid "fat stalks".  I am not in that camp.  I prefer the fat stalks, actually.  Whether spears are fat or thin, the key to good asparagus eating is proper cooking.

5.  Do I need to peel asparagus?
 If your asparagus is particularly "woody" or fibrous, or if you have not "snapped" the bottom, it is probably a good idea to peel the bottom several inches of the stalk, using a regular vegetable peeler.   But if you prepare a spear by snapping off the bottom end at its natural breaking point, chances are you do not need to do any peeling.  If you are like me and it kills you to break off the tough bottoms, you have two choices.  First, compost them and then they will be put to good use.  Or use them in soup stock (just throw in a bag in the freezer until you make the stock)  After you make the stock, THEN compost the waste.

6.  How long can I store fresh asparagus?
Most of the books say just two or three days.  Keep the spears wrapped or bagged and humid.  I recommend cutting off about 1/2 inch of the bottom and placing in a jar in about one inch of water and covering all with a plastic bag.  Stored this way I think asparagus will last as much as a week - especially if it is fresh when you get it.  If you have gotten it in your CSA box it is very fresh to start with.  The sugars in the stalk will be turning to starch all this time and aficionados think that the flavor is compromised after a few days.  I have not noticed that much difference myself.  Keep an eye on the tips - you want them to stay tightly closed and firm and not get mushy or slimy.

7.  What should I do if I can't eat my asparagus in a few days?
I suggest chopping the stalks (set aside the tips) and cooking in a small amount of salted water.  Puree when cool.  Blanch the tips in boiling water for about one minute.  Add puree to the tips and freeze.  This puree + tips is great used later for cream of asparagus soup or pasta sauce.

8.  Where does asparagus come from?
If you are lucky, it comes from your Featherstone CSA box or other fresh, local and seasonal source.  Otherwise,  the odds are - if you live in the U.S. - that it comes from Mexico or Peru.  If you live somewhere else, the odds are that your asparagus comes from China.  In 2008, the entire harvested world asparagus crop consisted of 1,386,630 hectares of asparagus.  Of that total,  1,265,685 hectares came from China.  13,030 hectares (or about .01) of the world crop came from the U.S.   Almost all the U.S. crop, such as it is,  comes from California, Michigan and Washington, in that order.  One more interesting factoid: in 1950, 131,620 acres of U.S. land was devoted to growing asparagus.  In 2009, that acreage had decreased to 29,200 acres.  I wonder what happened to that 102,000 acres of land?  What is it being used for today?

Tomorrow's post: Tried and True - Pinto Beans


  1. I just steamed the first asparagus from my first box: such an amazing flavor! so wonderful to open the fridge and snack on them all afternoon! The vegetable world equivalent of chocolate.

  2. Thank you! I had NO idea what to do with the asparagus from my box. I just have it wrapped in my fridge- I hope it's still good. It's been in there for 4 days!

  3. That is so sad that the US is down to less than 1/4 of its previous asparagus growing! I'll keep munching happily on the local stuff, then, to help us get the numbers up!;>)