Astounding Asparagus

Among the lovely things that announce the arrival of spring are the slender spears of asparagus. This unusual vegetable is noted for its versatility and pairs well with a variety of dishes, not just at a holiday table but anytime at any meal.

A Perennial Wonder

Although asparagus has been depicted in Egyptian friezes dating back to 3,000 BC, it wasn’t introduced to the U.S. until the mid-1850s. Asparagus is one of only three perennial vegetables, the others being rhubarb and artichoke. Most U.S. production comes from California, Washington and Michigan. In fact, Oceana County, Michigan, on the Lake Michigan shore, declares itself the Asparagus Capital of the World, owning homage to the green vegetable in a festival each June. Thanks to worldwide production, primarily from China, Peru and parts of Europe, asparagus can be enjoyed year-round instead of the U.S. harvest time limited to six weeks or more in the spring.

A Big Payoff for Hard Work

Growing asparagus requires patience. Planting “crowns” should produce a light crop the first year, but producing asparagus from seed needs three years to harvest. From then on a plant can produce asparagus for years, even decades, and can grow as much as an inch an hour!

 However, the asparagus plant is labor intensive, requiring plenty of sun, fertilizer, and space—a minimum of about four square feet—to support the root system and an attractive  post-harvest fernlike plant during the summer. There are three types of asparagus: the common green that we see in markets, a purple variety that turns green on cooking, and a white type. This latter variety, or Spargel, is hand-snipped at the base once the tips pop through the soil and kept in boxes to keep the stalk white. While driving through Germany, Austria and other parts of Europe during the spring harvest time you can spot locals piling this much-loved vegetable into bags at outdoor markets and roadside stands.

A Nutritional Powerhouse

Asparagus holds a wealth of saponins, phytonutrients that can produce anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer properties, and are helpful as a tool to control blood pressure, blood sugar and blood lipid levels. Moreover, asparagus contains Vitamins K, C, A and E, in addition to high levels of fiber, folate and potassium. There is no fat or cholesterol, and each spear contains only four calories (if you don’t drown it in butter or sauce).

Ideally, asparagus should have a bright uniform color, smooth skin, and tips that are dry and tight. For storage the stems can be wrapped in damp paper towels or stored upright in a glass of water in the refrigerator for several days.  Cut off woody stems and rinse well to get rid of sand and soil.

Now What You’ve Been Waiting For . . .

Ah, yes, the “Pee Factor.” The asparagus’s tender, tasty tips, or points d’amour, also produce the strongest flavor of the stalk. Blame the plant’s asparagusic acid for the give-off of smelly urine. During digestion the chemical breaks down into several related sulfur-containing compounds that contribute to the odor than can be detected 15-30 minutes after ingestion. Despite several worldwide scientific studies involving hundreds of subjects, it’s still unclear why some people produce or can smell the odor while others cannot. Other investigators suggest that all asparagus eaters have the smell in their urine but only a certain number of people can detect it. 

Well, to many of us it’s a small price to pay for such a delicious, versatile and nutritious vegetable.

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