Very few vegetables, if any, can lay claim to having got their big break on an Egyptian frieze dating back to 3000BC, and even fewer can lay claim to being one of the first subjects of attempted refrigeration, courtesy of the Romans high in the Alps. Asparagus can. This vegetable originated in the Eastern Mediterranean and was a favourite in both Greek and Roman society as a medicine.
In parts of Europe, Turkey, Africa, Middle East and Asia, varieties of asparagus grow wild. In some countries people prefer to eat white asparagus (it stays white because it is grown covered in soil), but New Zealanders like it green and there is little, if any, white asparagus grown here. Purple asparagus is increasingly available in New Zealand.
When purchasing choose straight firm green stems. Insist on fresh, clean product with trimmed ends and a minimum of white butt. Fresh asparagus is ‘squeaky’ – when the spears are gently rubbed they squeak. Old asparagus is rubbery and doesn’t squeak.
Asparagus is available September through to December, although are sometimes available earlier or later depending on the season.
Keep asparagus refrigerated with the butt ends either wrapped in wet paper towels, stand up in a jar with 1-2 cm of water (like flowers in a vase), or wash, then refrigerate in plastic bags.
When preparing, snap or slice off tough ends. These ends can used to flavour soups or stocks. Cooked asparagus should be tender but slightly crisp. For maximum flavour, don’t overcook – the ancient Roman emperor Augustus even coined the popular expression “velocius quam asparagi conquantur,” which translates to “faster than cooking asparagus.” Asparagus for use in salads is generally blanched. However, if the asparagus is thin and fresh it can be used raw. Purple asparagus is often eaten raw as it is sweeter and more tender than green. To retain the purple colour, add a little lemon juice or vinegar when cooking and cook for a very short time using a method such as stir-frying.
Lightly steam, stir fry, microwave, boil, bake or barbecue asparagus. Serve asparagus with hollandaise or aioli, or use in soups, quiches, pies, salads, stir-fries, or eat with fresh bread.
Asparagus is one of the highest vegetable sources of folate and is also a source of riboflavin, vitamin C as well as a significant amount of potassium. Asparagus contains a range of phytonutrients, particularly from the phenolic and carotenoid groups. It is one of the top-rated vegetables regarding the ability to neutralise free radicals, which research suggests may slow the ageing process. Being a natural diuretic, it helps rid the body of excess salts.
Ruth Pretty of Ruth Pretty Catering, from Te Horo on the Kapiti Coast, uses asparagus in her dish with anchovies and croutons.