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Asparagus

June 4, 2007
Marybeth Kampman

by Marybeth Kampman

“Asparagus … seems to inspire gentle thought."
Charles Lamb (1775-1834), English essayist
I was having anything but gentle thoughts about the prospect of eating Alsatian food. Everything I had read before I had embarked on our trip to Alsace Lorraine intimated that large portions of ham, sausage, and duck were the dishes of choice in the region. Being a Marin want-to-be vegetarian I was having serious qualms about my happiness eating in restaurants for the next ten days.
Fortunately I could not have been more mistaken. Arriving in the small town of Euguisheim I asked our guide if he could recommend a restaurant that featured specialties of the region. When he replied, “You are in luck, the asparagus has arrived.” My ears perked up and my salivary glands began to awaken. “What do you mean?” I asked.
“Well,” he went on, “asparagus has long been revered in the history of France. In the 16th century King Louis XIV ordered special greenhouses built so that he could enjoy asparagus year round. It was thought of as a delicacy reserved for the rich. The French prefer white asparagus, which is much more labor intensive to grow. During the first weeks in April the white asparagus becomes perfect for eating and so we celebrate. It’s akin to the fall celebration of the Nouveau Beaujolais wine. And of course it must be accompanied with a glass of our wonderful Muscat wine.”
I was dressed ready and waiting for dinner long before my more carnivorous husband. At the restaurant I ordered the special of the day: Assiette d’ Asperges—literally a plate of asparagus. I was presented with a large plate upon which lay a dozen or more perfect spears of thick white asparagus. Flanking it were two small tureens containing a mustard and a cream sauce and a small portion of Alsatian ham. A glass of chilled golden Muscat wine smelling of springtime accompanied it. I was in heaven.
I proceeded to eat more white asparagus that week than I ever thought possible. Each town we visited displayed chalkboard menus proclaiming “Les Asperges sont Arrive!” Some restaurants offered the option of experiencing your asparagus devoid of any other distraction except for the mandatory glass of Muscat wine. Ham could be ordered separately as a side dish. Here was a place that certainly had its priorities straight!
When I got home I did a little research on asparagus and found that I should be truly healthy as a result of my gastronomic adventures. Asparagus is a very good source of potassium and quite low in sodium. It is low in calories with less than four calories per spear and contains no fat or cholesterol. It is also an excellent source of folic acid. Folacin is necessary for blood cell formation, growth, and prevention of liver disease. It has been shown to play a significant role in the prevention of neural tube birth defects.
Asparagus (Asparagus officinalis) is a very hardy perennial plant, an almost leafless member of the lily family. It is easiest to grow from crowns or rhizomes, the fleshy stems that store food. When you examine the crown you will see the roots on the underside and the buds of future spears on the top. When buying asparagus crowns to plant in your garden, choose crowns that are grayish brown in color, plump and healthy looking.
Choose a sunny spot with sandy well-drained soil for your asparagus plot. Plant the crown of the asparagus in a trench 8-10 inches deep. Then cover with about three inches of soil. Even though it may be tempting, do not harvest the spears the first or second year. Instead, allow the plant to leaf out so that the fern like foliage can provide nutrients to establish a healthy crown ensuring a vigorous crop in years to come. Plants harvested too early in their life cycle become weak and spindly.
White asparagus is the same plant as green asparagus, but it is grown without sunlight so that chlorophyll does not develop. The crowns are planted on the surface of the soil instead of in trenches and the dirt is then mounded up over the rows. White asparagus is less fibrous than green. Purple asparagus is a variety and was first developed in Italy. It has a higher sugar content, which gives it a fruitier flavor than green asparagus. It’s purple color turns green when cooked.
It is personal choice whether the slender stalks or the thicker stalks are more flavorful. But in either case choose asparagus that is the darkest in color, or in the case of white, the lightest. The heads should be tightly closed.
Whether you prefer your asparagus thick or thin, prepare it for cooking by breaking each spear by hand. The spear will naturally break where it is most tender. It is usually suggested that the thicker asparagus be peeled before cooking. Prepare by steaming, roasting, sautéing or microwaving, being careful not to overcook it.
Nibbling on a tender stalk of slightly steamed asparagus I realize that asparagus does indeed inspire some very gentle and satisfying thoughts.

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