Friday, March 20, 2009

stalking spring…asparagus

Happy first day of Spring...!

So sorry I have not been posting here on my blog as much as usual.
Life is what happens to you while you are busy making other plans...
I hope that you will enjoy this first of many posts about what is delicious to eat from your local markets this Spring.

For me, the asparagus has always been a harbinger of spring. Seeing them poking their heads up in my garden is a subtle and tender sign that lets us know that our mother earth is back in the business of food production. And nothing tastes more like spring to me than freshly-picked asparagus before its sugary sweetness turn starchy on the tongue.

In 1908, Tokyo University chemist Kikunae Ikeda isolated a flavor that lay outside the four well-known tastes of salty, sweet, sour and bitter. He documented in his studies that asparagus had a distinctively different flavor coming from its glutamic acid and he named the fifth taste or umami.
Unfortunately, Dr. Ikeda also discovered the flavor enhancer MSG or Accent that was first commercially produced in the US since 1934.

Even with our harsh Midwestern winters, I recall that my mother always graced our Easter table with her homegrown tender green and white asparagus. Whenever I taste new spring asparagus, I am transported back around this family table and see the pride in my mom’s eyes. The memory of those tender and meltingly fresh stalks is what has made me a vegetable lover all my life.

Only now can I begin to understand why,when I was young, none of my friends liked asparagus. In fact they hated that veggie. I image that their only experience with the vegetable had been from a can or from the freezer. Most probably, it had also been cooked to a fibrous and pulpy consistency with the same khaki-green color as the 1970’s appliances. I am sorry for their misfortune. But I certainly can understand their veggie-hate…

As the days get longer and warmer and the pale gold winter grass gets greener with each sunny day, I look forward to those first sweet slender stems I glean from my garden and at the farmer’s markets and the myriad of dishes that I can create with them.

The stems and stalks of asparagus have the main function of conducting nutrients between the root and the leaves and providing support for the above ground organs. After a few weeks into the season as the sugar levels in the stalks decline, and I need to peel the woodier lignin stems before cooking. I still cherish asparagus season and will eat my fill.
The season is over too soon.

Now my mind wanders to the dishes I can cook:
the healthfully steamed asparagus with a touch of aged sweet balsamic vinegar,
creamy, rich asparagus soup,
crispy grilled asparagus,
ginger and garlic scented asparagus stir-fry,
lemon-pepper asparagus salad,
fresh raw asparagus tips perfectly dressed with olive oil,
fleur de sel and freshly ground pepper,
sautéed asparagus with aromatic olive oil,
lemon zest and fine leaves of grated Parmesano Reggiano or my favorite, because they are so rare,
the heavenly-pure white angelic asparagus richly dressed with lemony Hollandaise as they serve of the special menus or “spargel karten” in Germany…

I am out of breath, but not out of ideas.

According to my trusty Food Lover’s Companion, the asparagus stalk is a plant in the lily family. The earliest slender stalks are spring-green with purple-tinges tips. (But as my personal preference, I have to say as before, my favorite asparagus feast are the white varieties either the famous French asparagus of Argenteuil and those grown in Germany.)

Asparagus is low in calories, contains no fat or cholesterol, and is very low in sodium. It is a good source of folic acid, potassium, dietary fiber and rutin. The amino acid, asparagine gets its name from asparagus, the asparagus plant being rich in this compound.

Fun Food Chronology of the Asparagus

Asparagus (Asparagus officinalis) has been cultivated for thousands of years. The Macedonians first domesticated it in about 200 B.C.

16 A.D.
Romans dote on asparagus. They considered a dinner incomplete unless it featured a dish with asparagus.

“Asperge Blanche” (white asparagus) begins to be widely cultivates in Argenteuil, France becomes very popular all over the country.

Asparagus became known in Britain as “sparrow grass”.

King Louis XIV of France sets aside 20-acres to create a vegetable garden, and a greenhouse so that his court would have fresh vegetables. The greenhouse staff was expected to provide the King with his favorite vegetable, asparagus beginning every March.

“Traité des aliments” (Treatise on Food) by Louis Lémery of France states that “asparagus is to be eaten to sharpen the humors and the heart, but causes a disagreeable smell in the urine.”
It is true that asparagus excretes methylmercaptan into the urine, but not everyone can detect the odor.

German asparagus growers in the region around Mannheim begin cultivating white asparagus or spargel.
The top grade was called scangenspargel and the second grade, spargelgemüse.

The new cookbook “Directions for Cooking” by U.S. author Eliza Leslie published in Philadelphia states that “Ham should be accompanied by asparagus…”. She gives twenty recipes for preparing this vegetable.

Joseph Campbell and tinsmith Abram Anderson collaborate to open the
Campbell Soup Company, a cannery in Camden, N.J. After soups, they pack baby peas and fancy asparagus.

Britain gets their first frozen foods as Wisbech Producers Canners Ltd. introduces asparagus in May under the name Bird’s Eyes Frozen Foods Ltd.

Grilled Asparagus

Ingredients List

1/2 lb Asparagus

Olive Oil

Organic Tamari Gluten free Soy Sauce (or regular soy sauce if you have no dietary restrictions.)

Kosher Salt and freshly ground Pepper to taste.

Narrow wooden skewers soaked in water for 30 minutes or more before use .

Gas or charcoal grill.


Wash and pat dry asparagus.

Cut tough bottom ends.

Mix olive oil and soy sauce.

Paint or rub sauce over asparagus spears.

Line up 4 to 6 spears of asparagus, pierce near base and top with sharp skewers.

Leave a little space between spears to aid cooking.

Grill speared asparagus over direct heat 3-4 minutes per side, or until spears are crunchy-tender.

Salt and pepper the asparagus to taste.Serve and enjoy the first taste of spring.

Sesame-Lime Chicken Breast and grilled Spring asparagus with Wasabi sauce.
My recipe...cooked, plated and styled by me at métrogirl photography studios...

P.S. One of my images from this post appeared on Serious Eats...
Check out Serious Eats...


Anonymous said...

I loved reading the chronology of asparagus! Your presentation of the dish is gorgeous and I love the wasabi sauce - yum!

feasting-on-pixels (terrie) said...

Merci mille fois, are always an inspiration to me as well.

Anonymous said...

Oh my, now I am impatient for our asparagus season to be here. We live near Tigy, which is the asparagus capital of France. Tigy has their yearly Asparagus Festival at the end of May. Can't wait to share that with you!

A Brush with Color said...

Asparagus is one of my favorites. Joe just doesn't care for it, and I think it's the way he had it as a kid: I agree--the canned or frozen kind is a whole different animal. I love when it's just bright green and tender--it's just melt in your mouth good. I buy it JUST FOR ME! ;D

chez aurora said...

What a wonderfully comprehensive itinerary and visual treat! How lucky Terrie ... your first experience of asparagus was from your home garden! Grilled asparagus is my favorite way too, but I've never used the skewers! Thanks for the recipe & tip!

Happy First Day of Spring!


PS. I joined Food Buzz, thanks for the invite :)

chez aurora said...

PPS...Ohhhh, your photo of the radishes ... mmm ... we just need some beautiful sweet creamery butter and sea salt ...

feasting-on-pixels (terrie) said...

Merci mille fois, chêre Dedene and chêre Sue for reading my blog and for your great comments on my first Spring post.
As you can tell, I adore asparagus this time of year when it comes from a local source and is super-fresh.

Sue, I bet if you gave Joe a taste of your tender spring asparagus that were just gently steamed, he would be hooked for life...

Salut Barbara...
Merci mille fois for these wonderful comments.
I am so happy that you liked this post and my images.
Also glad that you like my new header...looking forward to these beautiful French Breakfast radishes.
I posted about them last year and what you describe is my fave way to eat them...

P.S. Batbara, I found Blood Orange soda available at Trader Joe's again, but it is a different label.
I will let you know if it is as good as what we both loved in the past.

jeanette, mistress of longears said...

WHY did I rip out my asparagus bed? Oh, yes, the blueberries grew too big and the only spot left for them was the asparagus bed, but I am regretting that bigtime! Your recipes sound fantastic!

Phil Lowe said...

Superb blog Terrie. Really enjoyed reading about the history of asparagus. I recall going to Karlsruhe in Germany a few years ago and seeing mounds of white 'spargel' for sale. Must go to Perkins (my local greengrocer) and get my fresh asparagus fix tomorrow.

Peter said...

Have you tried the wild asparagus ? You can find them along the roads in the south of France. Very thin, but good when they are young. Often served in an omelette.
You refer to the white version, which I believe is better considered here in France (and in Germany of course), but the slightly greener version looks so nice!
I think I have tried most of the recipes you mention - but of course not prepared by you! :-( - except the Parmesano Reggiano version; sounds tempting!
Thanks for the history lesson (I’m now not the only one to give such)! :-)
Yes, the spring is here and you post really makes one feel it!