By Jennifer Muck-Dietrich
“Velocius quam asparagi conquantur!”
Shouted by Roman Emperor Caesar Augustus to his troops, it translates to “faster than cooking asparagus”—essentially, “get moving already!”
Augustus loved asparagus so much he organized an elite military unit called “the asparagus fleet” to procure it for him throughout his empire. He even had his fastest chariots and runners carry the fresh picked spears high into the Alps to freeze for later use.
Asparagus is a member of the lily family and comes from the Greek word for “shoot” or “sprout”. Thought to have originated in the Eastern Mediterranean region, it has been prized for its medicinal and aphrodisiacal qualities for over 2000 years. It thrives in sandy, salty soils (try to say that three times fast!) and grows from a “crown” of thick roots. Once established, asparagus can be harvested for over 15 years. But it is essential that the first two years must mature without harvesting in order to feed the deeply planted roots with energy synthesized from the sun. By the third year’s growth, the stalks are pencil-sized and grow thicker and thicker each year after. With the right conditions of sun and rain, asparagus can grow 10 inches in 24 hours so it must be harvested daily.
Seed grown asparagus results in a 50/50 mix of male and female plants. Female plants produce red berries in late summer which take energy away from the vegetative growth making them less productive per acre. For this reason, commercial varieties are genetic male clones. Weeds are a major detriment to asparagus production, and early farmers used rock salt as an herbicide. This is no longer recommended, as salting the soil can cause die off of all surrounding plants and negatively impacts the soil for years to come. A safer option is to let your chickens into your asparagus patch to peck and scratch. This can help reduce your weeds by 90% without harming the deeply planted crowns.
China is the number one producer of asparagus with Peru as number two, Germany as number three. The United States ranks number five with most of the asparagus being grown in California, Michigan and Washington States.
Asparagus is available in three colors: green, purple, and white. Although purple is a different genetic variety from green, it does turn green once cooked. White asparagus are just the green spears deprived of sunlight. White asparagus is one of the most highly prized and labor-intensive crops to grow. The plants are buried deep in the soil to block out all sun so as to avoid chlorophyll production. Once the spear tips just barely poke out from the soil, the farmers gently dig down to just above the crown and then snip off the prized white spear. Surprisingly when these albino spears are exposed to sun, they turn pink.
Asparagus is one of the first crops we have available in the spring. It is low in calories, but high in folic acid, potassium, thiamin, and high in fiber. It contains vitamins A, B6 and C. White asparagus, because it contains much less chlorophyll than green, has less vitamin C. Its flavor is more mild than the green or purple, and it doesn’t have the same crisp texture.
Marcel Proust once wrote “asparagus transforms my chamber pot into a flask of perfume”. Benjamin Franklin also had issue with the interesting side effect of consuming asparagus. In 1781 he wrote a letter to the Royal Academy of Brussels saying, “A few stems of asparagus eaten, shall give our urine a disagreeable odour, and a pill of turpentine no bigger than a pea, shall bestow on it the pleasing smell of violets” (at the time he was trying to convince the academy to “discover some drug…that shall render the natural discharges of wind from our bodies, not only inoffensive, but as agreeable as perfumes”)
The reason our urine smells different is because of a naturally occurring chemical called asparagusic acid (found only in asparagus). As our bodies digest the vegetable, it is broken down into sulfur-containing compounds. As with many other sulfur containing substances like garlic, skunk spray, or odorized natural gas, these molecules convey a powerful, typically unpleasant odor that most people are sensitive to.
Asparagus is best harvested before the tips begin to open and become ferns. At this point the plant begins to develop lignin which makes the stalks woody in order to support the ferns. Harvest the stalks with a sharp knife, cutting just at the soil level while being careful not to cut into the crown. Immediately rinse and put in the refrigerator keeping the cut end moist with a paper towel, or set into a jar with 1 inch of water. Asparagus does not store well, so consume it within two to three days.
2 lbs asparagus stalks, tough bottoms removed
3 Tbs extra virgin olive oil
1 lemon, cut in half
3 Tbs balsamic vinegar
Salt and pepper to taste
Place asparagus on a roasting pan and roll in olive oil. Fire up your BarBQ grill to medium high, or turn on your oven broiler. Using tongs, place the spears onto the grill, or put the roasting pan under the broiler. Keep a close watch and roll the spears over after they char slightly on both sides. The stalks are done when they start to become soft. Remove from the heat, place on a serving platter and squeeze the juice of one lemon over them, or drizzle with balsamic vinegar.
*asparagus can also be roasted at 425 for 12-15 minutes. Halfway through sprinkle with parmesan cheese or nutritional yeast.
1 lb asparagus, trimmed & cut into 2” pieces
5 cups low salt vegetable broth
2 Tbs. olive oil
1/2 cup chopped yellow onion
1 1/2 cups arborio rice
1/2 cup dry white wine
6 Tbs. unsalted butter
3/4 cup Parmesan cheese
Blanch asparagus in large pot of boiling, salted water for 2 minutes. Drain and rinse under cold water. Set aside.
Bring vegetable broth to a simmer in a medium saucepan, reduce heat to low and keep the broth warm. Heat olive oil in large, heavy saucepan over medium heat. Saute onions until translucent. Add rice and stir for three minutes. Add white wine and cook until liquid evaporates. Stirring constantly, add hot broth one cup at a time letting the rice absorb the liquid before adding more, about 20 minutes. Rice will be tender but slightly firm in the center. Add blanched asparagus, stirring until heated through. Remove from heat and add the butter and stir until incorporated. Stir in grated Parmesan cheese. Season with salt and pepper to taste.