Nothing says “spring” like a plate full of asparagus, dripping with sweet butter. Tender delicious stalks of asparagus are appearing in gardens and farmer’s markets across North America right now.
First, some asparagus trivia…
Asparagus is a member of the lily family. Historical records indicate the consumption of asparagus in Egypt in 3000 BC. Ancient Greeks and Romans consumed it fresh and dried it to preserve it for out of season eating.
When you mention asparagus, many people immediately think of a distinct odor in the urine. Some people don’t notice the smell, and interestingly, the difference is genetically based. Two areas contribute to this – some people do not produce the odor and some people produce the odor but cannot smell it:
Most people detect a distinct sulfurous odor in their urine shortly after eating asparagus. However, there are some who seemingly do not notice the unpleasant odor.
Up until now, it has been unclear whether this is because these individuals do not produce the odor or because they cannot smell it.
Addressing this mystery from several angles, scientists from the Monell Center first used sophisticated sensory testing techniques to show that both explanations apply: approximately eight percent of the subjects tested did not produce the odorous substance, while six percent were unable to smell the odor. One person both did not produce the odor and was unable to smell it.
Next, DNA samples collected from each subject revealed that the inability to smell asparagus odor was linked to genetic variation within a family of olfactory receptors.
“This is one of only a few examples to date showing genetic differences among humans in their sense of smell,” said study co-author Danielle Reed, Ph.D., a Monell behavioral geneticist. “Specifically, we have learned that changes in an olfactory receptor gene can have a large effect on a person’s ability to smell certain sulfurous compounds. Other such compounds include mercaptan, the chemical used to add odor to natural gas so that people are able to detect it.” (source)
The pale green spears are absolutely packed with nutritional benefits.
- Fresh asparagus is an excellent source of the B-complex vitamins, as well as folate, and vitamins C, E, A, and K.
- Asparagus contains beneficial amounts of minerals like copper, iron, calcium, potassium, manganese, and phosphorus.
- A one cup serving of asparagus has 32 calories, 3 grams of dietary fiber, and 5 grams of protein.
- Asparagus has many anti-inflammatory compounds, such as asparagus saponins, including asparanin A, sarsasapogenin, protodioscin, and diosgenin. This makes asparagus very beneficial for anyone who suffers from inflammatory diseases such as arthritis and certain auto-immune disorders.
- Asparagus is loaded with antioxidants: vitamin C, beta-carotene, vitamin E, and the minerals zinc, manganese, and selenium. Anti-oxidants improve the immune system and help to protect against cell-damaging free radicals.
- Asparagus helps to support heart health, blood sugar regulation and can aid in protecting your body from cancer.
Asparagus has also been used holistically since ancient times. Asparagus is a diuretic and can be used to help with kidney or bladder issues. Asparagus has cleansing properties which make it an excellent addition to a detox program. Ayurvedic practitioners recommend asparagus as an aid to female reproductive issues, from PMS to infertility.
Asparagus is very easy to add to your own garden. It is perennial, so the work you do one season will pay off for a number of springs in the future. Plant the crowns about one foot deep in sandy soil. The Michigan Asparagus Advisory Board shares these interesting facts about growing asparagus.
- Under ideal conditions, an asparagus spear can grow 10″ in a 24-hour period.
- Each crown will send spears up for about 6-7 weeks during the spring and early summer.
- The outdoor temperature determines how much time will be between each picking…early in the season, there may be 4-5 days between pickings and as the days and nights get warmer, a particular field may have to be picked every 24 hours.
- After harvesting is done the spears grow into ferns, which produce red berries and the food and nutrients necessary for a healthy and productive crop the next season.
Selecting, Washing, and Storing Asparagus
Everyone has a decisive opinion on which asparagus is the best – the thick spears of the thin spears. (My personal preference is the thin, delicate spears.) Whichever you opt for, the tips should be tightly closed. Heritage varieties of asparagus can be purple, white, or the most common, pale green.
Asparagus is very rarely sprayed with pesticide, which means it isn’t absolutely necessary to spend the extra money on organic varieties.
Wash asparagus gently and then store it in the refrigerator with a damp paper towel around the cut ends.
Preparing Fresh Asparagus
Spring vegetables are so loaded with flavor that all you really need to do is lightly steam them, and asparagus is no exception. If you have thick spears of asparagus, use a carrot peeler to peel away the tough outer layer of the bottom part of the stem and cut off the woody end, before steaming. Steam asparagus for approximately 5 minutes for tender-crisp spears that you can pick up and eat with your fingers.
Try seasoning asparagus with butter, lemon juice, and freshly grated Parmesan cheese.
Asparagus also responds well to being lightly stir fried or roasted in a pan with garlic and olive oil.
I’m not going to lie – asparagus is one of those vegetables that really doesn’t preserve well. Some people don’t mind it, but to me, the mushy texture that you end up with at serving time is very unappetizing. This being said, home-canned asparagus is a very nice base for a wintertime treat of cream of asparagus soup. (See the recipe below.) Use preserved asparagus in soups, stews, casseroles and pasta dishes.
After washing your asparagus, cut it into 1 inch pieces. Very thick pieces should be sliced down the center. Blanch the pieces in boiling water for 30 seconds. After allowing the asparagus to cool, pat it dry thoroughly and place it in a single layer on the dehydrator racks. Dry in the dehydrator for about 6 hours. Store your dried asparagus in tightly closed glass canning jars.
To freeze a fresh asparagus harvest, wash it carefully, then blanch the whole spears in boiling water for two minutes. Immediately place the blanched asparagus into an ice bath. Remove the spears from the ice bath and pat them dry. Place them on a cookie sheet in a single layer and place this in the freezer for two hours. Store the frozen asparagus in large freezer bags.
Asparagus is a low acid vegetable so it MUST be pressure canned. The one exception to this rule is pickled asparagus, because the acidity of the vinegar makes it safe to water bath can. (See the recipe below.)
- Fresh asparagus
- Boiling water
- Prep your asparagus spears by washing them and removing the woody ends.
- If necessary, cut the spears into the proper length to put into your jars.
- Place the spears head up into your sanitized jars.
- Top each jar with a sprinkle of salt and cover the spears with boiling water. Wipe the rim and cap your jars with snap lids and rings.
- Process in a pressure canner for 30 minutes, adjusting for altitude.
- 5 pounds of fresh asparagus
- 4 cups of white vinegar
- 4cups of water
- 1 cup of sugar
- 6 tbps of pickling salt
Divide these spices evenly into 6 sanitized pint jars:
- 6 cloves of garlic
- 1 teaspoon of crushed chili pepper flakes
- 6 sprigs of fresh dill
- 3 tbsp of dill seeds
- 3 tsp of mustard seeds
- Wash your asparagus, then remove the woody ends.
- Cut the asparagus to lengths that will stand up nicely in your pint jars.
- Meanwhile, in a large pot, bring water, vinegar, salt and sugar to a boil.
- Divide the spices evenly across the jars.
- Fill the jars with asparagus spears.
- Pour the boiling liquid over the asparagus until it is completely covered.
- Wipe the rim and cap your jars with snap lids and rings.
- Process in a water bath canner for 10 minutes, adjusting for altitude.
It’s hard, but wait at least 2 weeks before popping open the first jar of pickled asparagus.
Cream of Asparagus Soup with Bacon
- 3 slices of bacon
- 2 tbsp flour
- 2 cloves of garlic, finely minced
- 1/4 cup of onion, finely minced
- Up to 1 cup of liquid from canned asparagus
- 1 cup of milk
- 2 pint jars of home canned asparagus
- salt and pepper, to taste
- Fresh Parmesan cheese
- Cook 3 slices of bacon over medium heat in a large saucepan until crispy.
- Put the bacon on a paper towel lined plate and reserve for garnish.
- Pour the bacon drippings out of the pan and then put 2 tablespoons back in. (If you use too much of the drippings your soup will be greasy.)
- Add garlic and onion to the bacon drippings and saute until lightly golden and fragrant.
- Dip out the garlic and onion with a slotted spoon, draining it against the side of the saucepan, and place it into the blender or food processor.
- Add the flour to the bacon drippings, whisking to mix it well. (You might need to add a tiny bit more bacon drippings here, but don’t go overboard.)
- Add milk and jar liquid, whisking constantly.
- When the contents of the stockpot begin to thicken, add your asparagus to the garlic and onion in the food processor or blender. (If you don’t have a food processor or blender, you can use a potato masher to mash it.) The texture is according to personal tastes – you can leave it a little chunkier or make it totally smooth.
- Pour the asparagus into the mixture in the saucepan and stir well to combine.
- Bring it to a simmer, stirring frequently until it is heated through.
- Season the soup with salt and pepper. Garnish lavishly with Parmesan cheese and crumbled bacon.
This savory soup is delicious served with a crusty bread.
Variation: If you don’t have bacon or opt not to use it, you can substitute 2-3 tbsp of butter for the bacon drippings.