Asparagus is a most delicious vegetable, with a delicate flavour that lends itself to a multitude of interesting cooking styles and flavour combinations. This nutritious green vegetable resembles a spear with a budding head. Appearing at the first sign of spring, the asparagus shoots (the parts we eat) are actually the new growth shoots of the plant, which is a member of the lily family. The spears grow from a crown which is planted about a foot underground, and the plant thrives in sandy soil conditions. In Victoria we are lucky, as we have asparagus grown in Mildura, and also in Koo Wee Rup. As we have a range of soils and climates suitable for growing great asparagus, we get a long extended season, which continues into summer. The best asparagus however, is to be had at the begining of the season, when the warm sunshine is balanced by spring rains to encourage the new growth. Under ideal growing conditions, asparagus spears can grow up to 10 inches in just 24 hours! There are many traditions that identify asparagus as an aphrodisiac and a symbol of fertility.
Asparagus is a nutrient dense food, which is high in folic acid, and contains potassium, fiber, vitamin B6, A and thiamin. It has no fat or cholesterol, and is low in sodium. It seems there is no end to the ways you can prepare this delicious vegetable.
* The larger the diameter, the better the quality! Contrary to popular belief, the thicker the stem, the more tender the asparagus. This is because the majority of the fiber (tough or woody bits) is in the skin. Thinner stems have a stronger, fresh green taste, where as the thicker stalks are more succulent and can absorb more of the other flavours in a dish.
* Look for firm, unblemished stalks that have a tight, compact heads, and avoid those with extra sprouting bits at the top. (this indicates a stem that has been left too long in the ground before picking)
* Asparagus should be easy to snap (not bendy) and should have a bright fresh smell. Ridges in the stems and a dull green color are an indication of old age. The stalks should not be limp or dry at the base.
* If choosing from loose asparagus, pick stems that are roughly the same diameter, to ensure even cooking.
Preparation and Storage:
*Wash asparagus just before cooking, as if it is stored for anytime with excess water above the woody end, the water can cause the asparagus to go slimy.
*Refrigerate upright in a container of water (3-4 cm) or wrap the bottom of the stalks in a damp paper towel or clean tea towel and seal in a plastic bag or container for up to 4 days.
* Snap the woody end from the stalk, (snapping the end, rather than cutting it with a knife ensures that the woody end part is removed. )
There are so many ways that asparagus can be eaten, here are a few ideas to get you started:
Throw asparagus into a stir-fry, combine it with red capsicum, yellow squash and a handful of snowpeas, flavour it with a small splash of tamari, a teaspoon of honey and some grated ginger.
Add it to a dish of roasting vegetables about 10 minutes before the end of cooking time. Try Sweet potato, parsnip, and beetroot, then add button mushrooms and asparagus when the other veges are almost done.
Saute asparagus stems in a little olive oil, add a grating of lemon zest, black pepper, then toss it through a bowl of rocket. Top with fresh shavings of cheese or a squeeze of lemon juice.
Lightly toss asparagus with some oil then bake in a medium to hot oven for around 10 minutes. Serve with a splash of balsamic vinegar and some toasted pecan nuts, chopped roughly.