Asparagus

This sturdy green vegetable has a surprisingly delicate flavor – and packs a powerful nutritional punch.

Spear-shaped, crisp and tender, asparagus is a dignified green vegetable that doesn’t scream for attention in produce aisles. But once you know how nutritious, delicious and easy it is to prepare, you’ll want to put it front-and-center on your plate.

Food Basics

Asparagus is a traditional, early-spring food. Green asparagus is most popular in the United States, while Europeans prefer the crisper and milder white asparagus.

Most asparagus available in grocery stores is harvested in California from February through May, and in the Midwest and East from May to July. The rest of the year, it’s grown in Mexico, Peru, France, Spain and other Mediterranean countries.

Try to purchase asparagus grown close to home, because it begins to lose its flavor after it’s harvested and can take on a woody texture as freshness wanes. Look for firm, round stalks with green or purple-colored, tightly closed tips. Stalks can be pencil-thin or finger-thick. Avoid withered spears and dry or slimy stem ends.

Nutritional Know-How

Asparagus is an excellent source of vitamins K, C and A, as well as folic acid, which is necessary for producing red blood cells. It is also a good source of potassium, fiber, B vitamins, manganese, copper and phosphorous. And best of all, it’s rich in health-promoting phytochemicals – compounds that fight cancer, inflammation and free-radicals.

Because asparagus causes most people to produce methanethiol (an essence similar to skunk spray), you may notice a peculiar odor in your urine after eating it. Not everyone can detect this smell, but if you can, don’t worry. It’s absolutely harmless.

Kitchen Tricks

  • To remove the fibrous white base, bend the spear until it breaks. It will snap right where the tender part meets the tougher end.
  • Because asparagus is grown in sandy soil, wash it thoroughly to remove the grit from the tips.
  • To store: Trim the stems and stand them in a glass filled with 1 to 2 inches of water. Cover with a plastic bag and refrigerate for two to three days.

Eat Up!

Always cook asparagus quickly. If it gets soft, it can lose its flavor. Avoid cooking it in iron pots: its tannins (naturally occurring plant polyphenols) will react with the iron, causing an unpleasant taste.

  • You can serve asparagus cold after blanching, which brightens its color. Simply submerge the stalks in boiling water for a few seconds, then quickly cool them in ice water.
  • For a quick sauté, cut asparagus into bite-size pieces and add to a hot frying pan with olive oil, chopped garlic, diced tomatoes and shiitake mushrooms. Sauté for one to two minutes. Before serving, season with lemon juice, soy sauce or balsamic vinegar, basil, parsley, tarragon, or rosemary.
  • For grilled asparagus, mist spears with extra-virgin olive oil and add a touch of balsamic vinegar, freshly ground pepper and sea salt. Grill for five minutes, rotating the stalks every minute.
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Asparagus With Tarragon Aioli

Presented by Conscious Cuisine® Makes four servings Tarragon aïoli (makes 1 cup) 1 tbs. roasted garlic 1/2 tsp. minced fresh garlic 1 cup low-fat mayonnaise, or soy-based mayonnaise 1 tbs. minced fresh tarragon 1/8 tsp. freshly ground black pepper 1/4 tsp. sea salt 1/2 tsp. extra-virgin olive oil Place the roasted garlic, fresh garlic, mayonnaise and tarragon in a blender, and process until smooth. Add the pepper, salt and olive oil. Pulse to combine. Refrigerate until ready to use. The aïoli can be made one day ahead; it will keep for five days in the refrigerator. Asparagus 1/2 tsp. sea salt 1 lb. green or white asparagus (24 spears), bottoms trimmed If the asparagus is large, use a vegetable peeler to peel the stalks to just below the tips. This will ensure even cooking and remove the outer skin that becomes tough as the asparagus grows. Bring 2 quarts of water and the salt to a boil in a medium saucepan. Add the asparagus and cook until it is tender, but still firm (a knife will easily pierce the asparagus), about three to five minutes. Remove the asparagus from the water and serve immediately with the aioli. (You can also chill the asparagus in ice water and serve cold, or refrigerate to serve later.) Per serving (6 asparagus stalks and 2 tbs. of aïoli): Calories 40; Protein 4 g; Total Fat 0.5 g; Saturated Fat 0 g; Carbohydrates 7 g; Dietary Fiber 2 g; Cholesterol 0 mg; Sodium 190 mg

Roast Vegetable Strudel

Presented by Conscious Cuisine® Makes six servings Filling 1 bunch medium asparagus, stem ends removed and cut in half lengthwise and crosswise 1 medium carrot, peeled, cut into 2-inch sticks 1 medium zucchini, cut into 2-inch sticks 1 medium portabella mushroom, gills removed, julienned 1/2 tsp. extra-virgin olive oil 1/4 tsp. sea salt 1/8 tsp. freshly ground black pepper 1 tbs. fresh herb mix 3/4 cup lightly packed arugula, washed and dried 1 cup teardrop or cherry tomatoes Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F (230 degrees C). Place the asparagus, carrot, zucchini and portabella mushroom on a baking sheet. Mix the vegetables with the olive oil. Season with the salt, pepper and herbs. Roast the vegetables for 10 minutes, or until lightly browned and moisture is noticeable. Remove the vegetables from the oven and transfer to a clean dish. Reduce the oven temperature to 425 degrees F (220 degrees C). Phyllo 9 phyllo dough sheets Olive oil spray 3 tbs. fresh herb mix Gently lay one piece of phyllo dough on a clean cutting board. Lightly mist with olive oil spray. Sprinkle with 1 tsp. of mixed herbs. Repeat with phyllo and herbs to make two more layers. You will have three layers of phyllo. (Keep remaining phyllo covered with a damp towel.) Cut the rectangle in half lengthwise. On each rectangle place 1/2 cup of the vegetables. Lay three tomatoes and 2 tbs. of arugula on top of vegetables. Fold in the sides of the dough, and lift the bottom of the dough over the vegetables. Begin to gently roll up the strudel. You will be making a long tube, like a burrito. Repeat with remaining phyllo and vegetables to make a total of six strudel rolls. Place the strudel on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Lightly mist the top and sides of each strudel with olive oil spray. Bake the strudel for 10 to 12 minutes, or until golden brown. Yellow Tomato Sauce 1/4 tsp. extra-virgin olive oil 1/2 cup chopped yellow onion (about 1 medium) 2 tbs. minced garlic 6 yellow tomatoes, chopped 1/2 cup white wine 1 tbs. finely shredded fresh basil 1/2 tsp. raw cane sugar 1/4 tsp. sea salt 1/8 tsp. freshly ground black pepper Heat a medium saucepan over medium-high heat, and add the olive oil to lightly coat the bottom of the pan. Stir in the onion and garlic and cook until the onion has softened, about two minutes. Add the tomatoes and wine and simmer until the tomatoes are cooked, about 15 minutes. Carefully ladle the tomato sauce into a blender and process until smooth. Pour the sauce back into the saucepan and bring to a low boil. Stir in the basil, sugar, salt and pepper. Use the sauce immediately, or cool quickly by setting in a bowl of ice and water. Store in an airtight container for up to one week in the refrigerator or freeze for about one month. To serve: Cut the strudel in half on the diagonal. Ladle 1/4 cup of the Yellow Tomato Sauce on each plate. Arrange two halves on top of the sauce. Drizzle with a balsamic reduction. Per serving: Calories 130; Protein 5 g; Total Fat 3 g; Saturated Fat 0.5 g; Carbohydrates 22 g; Dietary Fiber 3 g; Cholesterol 0 mg; Sodium 250 mg

Cream of Asparagus Soup

Presented by Conscious Cuisine®
Makes six 1-cup servings

1/4 tsp. extra-virgin olive oil
1 cup diced yellow onion (about 1 large)
1/2 cup chopped celery (1 medium rib)
4 cups chopped, peeled asparagus (about 2 lbs.)
1/2 tsp. minced garlic
1 bay leaf
1 tsp. fresh thyme
3 cups diced, peeled potatoes
4 cups vegetable stock
1/2 tsp. grated nutmeg
1 tsp. sea salt
1/4 tsp. freshly ground black pepper

Heat a medium stockpot over medium-high heat. Add the olive oil to lightly coat the bottom of the pan. Add the onion, celery and asparagus. Cook until the asparagus is bright green, about two minutes. Add the garlic and cook one minute. Stir in the bay leaf, thyme and potatoes. Add enough of the stock to cover the vegetables. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer until the potatoes are soft, 20 to 25 minutes. Add the nutmeg, salt and pepper. Remove the bay leaf.

Carefully ladle the soup into a blender and process until puréed and smooth. Strain through a fine mesh strainer or colander lined with cheesecloth to remove any asparagus strings. Return the strained soup to a pan over low heat. Taste and adjust the seasoning with additional salt, pepper and nutmeg, if desired. Add a little more stock or water to the soup a creamy consistency if it seems too thick.

Variation: Add sautéed, fresh morel mushrooms to the finished soup for a magnificent garnish and upscale presentation.

Per Serving:
Calories 110; Protein 4 g; Total Fat 0.5 g; Saturated Fat 0 g; Carbohydrates 25 g; Dietary Fiber 5 g; Cholesterol 0 mg; Sodium 390 mg

Chef Cary Neff is president of the consulting firm Culinary Innovations and the author of Conscious Cuisine (Sourcebooks, 2002).

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By Cary Neff