The tender stems have been cultivated since Roman times, each year heralding the arrival of warmer weather as they shoot up from the ground. Now the lush, bright taste of asparagus is synonymous with summer and it’s time once more to revel in their fresh abundance.
“Asparag” is an ancient Persian word meaning sprout, an apt title for this obscure vegetable. It was the early Romans who fiercely cultivated asparagus in their gardens way back in the first century AD. Nowadays, our stems are thicker, and fleshier, than the wispy shoots they first foraged from marshy fields. Yet, just as the Romans did, every year we celebrate spring by devouring these most ancient of edible stems.
How to buy
Asparagus can really only be hand harvested, so it is quickly picked with a sharp blade. Look for nice clean, freshly cut shoots, with the woody end still attached. Crisp, green, crunchy stems are what you are looking for – no wilting or floppy tips wanted. The buds at the end of the stem should still be tightly closed, with long green to purple tips. Any brown spots, mould or wrinkled stems should be avoided. The asparagus spear starts to lose its flavour as soon as it is picked, so the freshest of fresh is best.
How to store
Fresh asparagus spears will have a crunch and taste like no other. The less time from picking to plate the better as the spears have a high respiration rate, meaning they lose water and expel carbon dioxide rapidly. Most asparagus that comes into store would have been picked within 1-2 days of reaching a good greengrocer’s shelf. To store at home, keep in a plastic bag in the fridge for 1-2 days, but no longer, they will become undesirable quickly. With so much asparagus around when season begins there usually is no need to store bundles at a time. But if there is an abundance it is best to freeze what you can’t eat straightaway. Wash the stems well, and blanch them for 2 minutes until just tender. Drain and freeze as individual stems then put them all together in a sealed bag or container. Keep frozen for 6 months maximum.
How to grow
Asparagus starts its life from black hard seeds that take at least two or three years from plating before producing a crown, where the spears sprout from. The crowns need plenty of space to prosper, with at least half a metre between each plant. These crowns can be left to grow for 20 years in fertile, alkaline soil, although crops will slowly diminish. Commercial growers only keep productive asparagus crowns for about three years before ploughing them up to rest the ground for a new bed. In a nutshell, it takes a lot of time and space to grow asparagus on a large scale. For the home gardener, you need to start with a friable, spacious ground. The site needs plenty of sunshine, not too much frost in the winter, plenty of straw mulch and daily attention at harvest time. The spears will “sprout” out of the soil and can be picked from 10-20cm above the ground with a sharp knife; if they are left, you will end up with a forest of thorny, leafless stems dropping seeds everywhere.
Always give the spears a good wash first under cold, running water. Break or slice away the tough, woody end – that is, about the first 2-3cm. Trim any long leaves from the stem, if you wish, and then prepare. Cut lengthways, in thin elegant slices, chunks, rounds or julienned or whatever. For perfect crisp steamed spears, place the long spears flat on a large bamboo steamer over simmering water. Cover and steam for 3-4 minutes depending on thickness.
Did you know
Asparagus has also derived the names “sparrow grass” or the Malay term “saparu keras”. The plant comes from the same family as lillies, which is apparent in the way they grow –sending up spears out of the ground that if left to their own device they will grow into long stems or large blooms. What we eat is actually the first stem of the flower, the most tender and immature shoot of the unfurling plant. If the developing stems are covered with soil as they pop up, the same thick stems will continue to develop without chlorophyll, creating white almost translucent spears. White asparagus is still a delicacy in many cuisines.
Asparagus is loaded with goodness – it is the super-duper of superfoods. Good reason why good folk pay a lot of money for fresh bundles at the beginning of each season. After the winter vegetables the fibre, folate and high vitamin count of each spear is worthy of the expense. Asparagus is full of folate, crucial in brain development and cognitive flexibility. It is a natural diuretic, acting to help flush out excess salts in our livers; it’s packed with antioxidants to help fight the ageing process; and it has anti-inflammatory properties to ward off diabetes. It can help in blood sugar regulation, contains fibre to aid digestion … the list goes on and on. All good reasons why asparagus is high on the list of medicinal foods in Ayurvedic diets and health spa menus. It’s just really good for you in every way.
Match with asparagus
It is perfect by itself! But if you must mix asparagus with other ingredients, the usual suspects are good quality olive oils or avocado oil, all types of vinegar, eggs, salmon, butter, citrus, soft rind cheese, goat’s cheese, nuts, saffron, rice, garlic, beans, mustard, pastry, lentils and legumes, fish and seafood as well as red meats, ham and other cured meats. Herbs including dill, chervil and tarragon also make good matches.
Try some of our favourite asparagus recipes: