It's finally here! Yesterday we harvested a couple stalks of asparagus and had the first asparagus sandwich with grilled cheese. Today we had asparagus rolls asparagus rolled in ham and topped with cheese, then baked. This year, with the ground frozen deep for a long time, our asparagus was late in coming.
The tender, succulent shoots are the nobility of the vegetable world - even more so when picked fresh and eaten right away.
Ancient Egyptians cultivated it as an offering to the gods, and its distinctive flavor was coveted by such historical figures as Julius Caesar, Louis XIV of France and our own Thomas Jefferson. King Louis XIV was so fond of it that wanted to eat it all year long, so he had his gardeners grow asparagus in greenhouses.
Most garden veggies are annuals, sown from seed each year. Asparagus is one of the few perennial vegetables. This is why it is one of the first treats of spring.
Few gardeners grow this delectable vegetable, because it takes three full years between first planting and harvesting. It needs sun and sandy, well-drained soil. Once established, however, this hardy perennial needs little attention besides weeding and a little fertilizing. Now that the stalks are ready, for the next few weeks we'll be on an asparagus diet - eating the tender shoots at least once, if not twice, each day in a variety of salads, stir fries, frittatas, and other dishes.
If you, too, are on an asparagus diet this time of year, you may notice a funny smell to your urine. Don't panic. You're not ill with some strange disease. This is due to a sulfur containing amino acid, a chemical compound known as methanethiol or methyl mercaptan. Don't let this stop you from eating asparagus, which contains more folic acid than any other vegetable, along with many other essential nutrients (potassium, thiamine, vitamins A, C, and B6, and a powerful antioxidant, glutathione). With just 4 calories per stalk, asparagus is a great food for dieters!
Many people know asparagus only from cream of asparagus soup or the supermarket's canned vegetable aisle. Fresh asparagus is completely different fresh, crisp, succulent, and full of flavor.
Asparagus is best when eaten right after being picked; it begins to lose both crispness and flavor from the minute it is harvested. Tenderness is related to freshness and maturity rather than size. Stems do not get thicker with age; the thick stems are already fat when they come out of the ground.
If you buy your asparagus, look for straight, firm stalks with tight buds. Open or wilted tips indicate it is past its prime. Use your fingernail to test the bottom of the stalk. If it is dry with no juice, it will be tough and fibrous.
Garden-fresh spears require almost no cooking; the tender tips are best added to salads or grilled in sandwiches. Or use in a stir fry; cut the spears diagonally in half-inch pieces, and stir-fry in butter or cooking oil, stirring, in a wok or a skillet, on medium-high heat, for 2 to 5 minutes until crisp-tender.
Asparagus Cheese Sandwich
This open-faced sandwich makes a quick, easy lunch.
Four slices stone-ground whole wheat bread
Four slices American cheese
1 Tablespoon soft butter
1 / 2 pound asparagus spears
2 Tablespoons snipped chives or finely minced sweet onion (optional)
Butter bread slices. Sprinkle lightly with chives or sweet onions, if using. Cut asparagus in three-inch lengths, and arrange on the bread. Top with a slice of American cheese. Stick under the broiler or in the toaster oven, and toast to crisp the bread and melt the cheese. Serves four.
Asparagus Millet Salad
1 cup millet (feel free to substitute with quinoa or barley)
2 cups water
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
Several stalks asparagus
1 carrot, shredded
1/4 cup chopped Parsley
1/4 cup chopped chives
1/4 cup of chopped nuts or sunflower seeds, optional
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
2 Tablespoons Olive oil
1 teaspoon pure maple syrup
1 to 2 TBLS Soy sauce (tamari)
Combine water, salt and millet in a medium saucepan. Lower heat and simmer about 15 minutes. Add asparagus and cook 2 minutes longer until liquid is absorbed and millet is tender.
While the millet cooks, whisk together vinegar, oil, maple syrup and soy sauce. Stir into hot grain. Transfer to salad bowl and add stir in remaining ingredients. Mix well. Serve chilled or at room temperature.
Author of Garden Gourmet: Fresh & Fabulous Meals from your Garden, CSA or Farmers' Market, Yvona Fast lives in Lake Clear and has two passions: cooking and writing. She can be reached at www.wordsaremyworld.com.