Asparagus should be considered a happy vegetable. When it sprouts from the ground, it declares the end to Winter: the last of things shrouded in layers, the retreat of cold, wet and bleak; the passing of days hunkered down and staying inside. It sings the arrival of Spring: fresh new life, the return of spirit and colours green, red and all the other hues; having fun outdoors again. Asparagus is the harbinger of joy, the welcomed release of what’s been pent up.
Like relieving your bladder first thing when you get out of bed. If you’ve had asparagus for dinner the evening before, it’s going to smell somewhat stronger than usual. But that’s ok, because it’s believed to be the result of the asparagus you’ve ingested detoxifying your body of harmful chemicals. So bring it on – the more pungent the odour, the better!
Because of its diuretic properties and delicate flavour, and also perhaps thanks to some mysticism attached – asparagus was apparently pictured as an offering in an Egyptian frieze dating to 3,000 BC – the vegetable has a history of being associated with medicinal use. The ancient Greeks thought it to be beneficial for general health, and in Indian lore, asparagus was believed to counteract fatigue and increase sexual appetite.
Fresh asparagus contains about 90% water which is a lot of hydration. It’s a good source of iron, copper and vitamin B6 (an important nutrient in haemoglobin synthesis and function) which work together to enable better oxygen transport in our blood. Vitamin B6 is also important in aiding amino acid, glucose and lipid metabolism. And asparagus contains chromium, which enhances the ability of our body’s insulin to move glucose from our bloodstream to our cells. So the claim that consuming asparagus can help overcome fatigue is believable. As for the other claim, we’ll take it with a pinch of salt for now.
Asparagus is also a good source of calcium which is an essential nutrient for living organisms, magnesium which is an essential nutrient for healthy cells and metabolism, and zinc which is an essential mineral for development and overall health. The message is clear: asparagus is essential!
Not only that, asparagus is packed with dietary fibre which, combined with its inherent high hydration value, is great for helping us maintain a healthy digestive tract and regular bowel movement. This plays an important part in reducing the risk of a more sinister ailment: cancer. The doubles-partner here are the nutrients asparagus is rich in: vitamins C and E, riboflavin, manganese and beta-carotene – which are widely known for their antioxidant, anti-inflammation and anti-cancer properties. Eating asparagus regularly thus gives you all these health benefits against the risk of cancer, in particular colorectal (ie. colon, rectal or bowel) cancer. Additionally, asparagus contains histones which are high-alkaline proteins that regulate our genes, and are believed to be active in controlling cell growth. This action as a “growth normaliser” is purported to have an anti-cancer function as well.
Another destructive set of diseases that asparagus is known to be good against is high blood pressure, stroke, high cholesterol and cardiovascular diesease. That’s because asparagus is an excellent source of thiamin (maintains healthy nerves and cardiovascular system), rutin (prevents blood clots, used to treat heart attacks and strokes), and niacin (used in treating high cholesterol and cardiovascular disease).
Other nutrients that asparagus is rich in are vitamin K (for blood coagulation and preventing uncontrolled bleeding, a balance to rutin which is also present in asparagus), folic acid (for growth and production of healthy red blood cells), phosphorous (essential for all life forms), and potassium (necessary for the proper functioning of all living cells).
Asparagus is often regarded as a “luxury vegetable” and indeed it’s usually pricier than other vegetables. Harvested when it’s six to eight inches tall, asparagus is prized for its delicate, succulent taste and tender texture. The finest texture, and strongest yet most delicate flavour, is found in its tips which have been referred to as points d’amour or “love tips”. Tall, narrow cooking pots have been specially made to gently cook asparagus while keeping the precious tips above the waterline to prevent overcooking them during the process.
The most common variety we eat is green asparagus. There’s also white asparagus which has a finer flavour and texture. When the shoots are small they are covered with soil and continue growing without exposure to sunlight, so the shoots stay white. But more labour involved in their farming and cultivation also makes white asparagus more expensive than green ones. A third variant is the smaller (two to three inches) purple asparagus which has a sweeter, fruitier flavour. There’s also wild asparagus, sometimes called “bath asparagus”, which is a slim, willowy version of green asparagus and has a sublime taste and texture.
We order, pack and deliver all variants from time to time at Sofresh, and it’s sometimes truly marvelous to see what Mother Nature produces in all forms, shapes and colours. It’s wonderful to behold and something that always stays fresh for me.
Increasingly, asparagus is being eaten raw. But the “old” ways to cook and prepare the vegetable on its own or as a complement still work great.
Asparagus with thin stems can be used straight away after a wash. But if those you’ve bought have thicker “woodier” stems, then you should peel the outer skin at the bottom of the stem, otherwise the asparagus will be tough and stringy when eaten.
Bring a skillet of water or broth to boil. Once bubbling, put in whole asparagus and cover for five minutes, then remove them to a plate, drizzle with extra virgin olive oil, and sprinkle lightly with freshly ground sea or rock salt and black pepper. A dash of balsamic vinegar will add a nice twist. And there you have it – a great, healthy asparagus dish “faster than cooking asparagus”, as the expression goes for doing something quickly. For some flair, add sauteed garlic, mushrooms and cherry tomatoes to the dish – Yummy!
Chop some cooked asparagus into small pieces and add them to your omelette for extra flavour, colour and nutrition. This could also be a great way to introduce asparagus to children. You can also add whole, sliced or chopped asparagus to any pasta or salad dish. Or wrap a slice of bacon around two or three sprouts of asparagus and grill or pan-fry.
To make Cream Of Asparagus Soup, puree cooked asparagus and strain through a sieve to remove stringy bits. Cook together in a pot with chicken or vegetable stock, and milk or cream. Finish with a garnish of cooked asparagus tips, or herbs (eg. chives, parsley, basil, or tarragon), and crème fraiche or sour cream. Add croutons if you like them. This soup can be served hot or cold.
Asparagus is a versatile friend to have in your kitchen. It’s great on its own, and it also plays nice with other vegetables, meats and seafood. There are virtually countless ways to prepare and eat asparagus, but they’re best eaten fresh and soon after buying because of their high respiration rate – they can lose water, wrinkle and harden quite quickly. You can slow this down by wrapping the ends of asparagus with a damp paper or cloth towel and storing them in the Crisp or Vegetable compartment in your fridge.
So, now I’m thinking: when I next crave sinful roti prata, or roti canai as it’s called in Malaysia, instead of the usual kosong (plain), telor (with egg) or telor-bawang (with egg and onion), I’ll bring along home-cooked asparagus and try asking the prata-man to chop them up and make me a telor-asparagus. These days prata cafes are very innovative, and if it’s not been done before then I might just end up starting a trend!