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Food of Kings
Asparagus is royal treat — and the best are brightest spears

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Asparagus is royal treat — and the best are brightest spears

Asparagus . . . what a weird word! It must have made sense two thousand years ago when the giver of names borrowed the ancient Greek meaning for "sprout" or "shoot."

The Romans feasted on the tender spears in season and learned to preserve them by freezing. The method wasn't convenient, but with chariots and runners, asparagus could be plucked from the banks of the Tiber River and quickly taken to the snowy Alps. There it was kept for six months, until the highlight of gluttony -- the Feast of Epicurus.Emperors maintained a special "asparagus fleet" to gather and carry the best spears (veggies, not weapons) back to their forum kitchens.

Asparagus and its preparation were so familiar that Caesar Augustus described the meaning of "haste" to his underlings as being "faster than you can cook asparagus . . . " -- which should be a hint to cooks who steam the life out of the vegetable. Asparagus should be bright green when finished -- NOT brown.

King Louis XIV of France supervised the construction of private greenhouses to cultivate a ready supply of asparagus year-round. Because so many "royals" loved it, asparagus was known as "the food of kings."

But what if you can't stand asparagus?

Either you're under the age of 20 or saddled with asparagus aversion because your mom forced you to eat the stuff . . . not fresh, but canned or frozen. But you can develop an asparagus palate with proper experience.

With the availability of fresh asparagus in supermarkets, asparagus is no longer a luxury but an affordable food. And, by the way, you asparagus activists, fresh tastes NOTHING like canned.

A memorable account of asparagus adoration was penned by New York Times food editor, Molly O'Neill . . .

"I know a man who would lie on his stomach and remain that way for hours, watching the asparagus push through the damp earth," she wrote.

A slow-moving drama . . . and oh, the laundry . . . .

Asparagus is a fast grower. With spring's onset, spears shoot up almost overnight, rarely taking more than three days to reach full size.

But the burst of speedy growth only happens in the wild, say gardeners who have tried growing asparagus at home.

The perennial of the lily family takes at least two years to become a producing bed. The plant is a large rhizome, or "crown" (there's that royalty thing) that grows underground until the temperatures rise, causing the stalks to pop up.

The crown sends up fresh shoots continuously until temperatures become too hot. In California, growers stop cutting in May.

To select asparagus, growers recommend buying the brightest green spears you can find. Look for tight heads and hardly any wooden stem. If you need to store them for a couple of days in the fridge, take a thin slice off the bottom of each stalk and stand them in an inch of water. A tall glass container with a plastic bag held on with a rubber band is good. Ideally, use asparagus the day you buy it.

Purists prefer asparagus unadorned. Some add a squirt of fresh lemon juice, Parmesan cheese, olive oil with black pepper or butter and nutmeg.

If you wish to save fat grams, skip the Hollandaise or cheese sauce and use a small amount of sour cream or yogurt flavored with orange or lemon zest, mustard or curry powder. Fruit-based vinegars or soy sauce with sesame seeds are quick and tasty.

So, you're about to settle in to some serious asparagus consumption, and you're not sure of the "proper" way to eat the spring spears. Not to worry. At a state dinner, John F. Kennedy and wife Jackie were both observed picking up the stalks and nibbling oh-so properly.

Etiquette expert Emily Post wrote that it is perfectly proper to eat asparagus with one's fingers. "But you must never let the juice drip off your elbows," she instructs.

Letitia Baldridge, protocol princess for several U.S. presidents, concurs. She says asparagus may be eaten in one of two ways -- depending upon how long it's been cooked and how much is buried in the sauce: either with the fingers, or with a knife and fork.

Now that you're asparagus-fluent, use your newly gleaned knowledge whenever you're in need of some interesting banter, whether at a company party or a formal dinner.

You could start the conversation with this:

"Did you know that old-timers who farmed asparagus drank the leftover water after the spears were cooked?"

That's because asparagus was fabled for medicinal and aphrodisiac effects.

Then you could say: "And guess what?"

Modern analysis has revealed asparagus is a natural diuretic, a good source of folic acid, vitamin C, potassium and fiber.

ROASTED RED PEPPER SAUCE

2 small red peppers

1 1/2 tablespoons tomato paste

1 tablespoon olive oil, preferably extra-virgin

2 teaspoons cider vinegar

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Place peppers directly over the flame of a gas burner or under a preheated broiler. Roast, turning often, until black all over, about 8 to 10 minutes. Set aside to cool. Slip off the skins, cut away the stems, slit peppers open and remove seeds.

In a food processor, puree the peppers. (You should have about 1/2 cup puree.) With a rubber spatula, force the puree through a fine strainer set over a small bowl; discard solids. Whisk in tomato paste, oil and vinegar. Season with salt and pepper. The sauce can be made up to 3 days in advance; store, covered, in the refrigerator. Serve over hot or room-temperature asparagus. Makes 1/2 cup.

Each tablespoon contains 25 calories, 0g protein, 2g fat, 2g carb, 2mg sodium, 0mg cholesterol. From Eating Well magazine.

ASPARAGUS SESAME

1 pound fresh asparagus, ends trimmed, each stalk cut diagonally into thirds

1/2 teaspoon vegetable oil

1/2 cup finely diced red bell pepper

1 tablespoon low-sodium soy sauce

1/2 teaspoon oriental sesame oil

2 teaspoons sesame seeds, toasted

Cook asparagus in large pot of boiling salted water until crisp-tender, about 3 minutes. Drain. Rinse asparagus under cold water. Drain well. Can be made 1 day ahead. Wrap in paper towels and chill.)

Heat vegetable oil in large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add bell pepper and stir 1 minute. Add asparagus and saute until heated through, about 2 minutes. Add soy sauce and sesame oil; toss until asparagus and bell pepper are coated, about 1 minute. Transfer to serving plate. Sprinkle with sesame seeds. Serves 4.

Each serving contains 38 calories, 3g protein, 2g fat, 3g carb, 154mg sodium, 0mg cholesterol. From Epicurious.

SKILLET CHICKEN WITH ASPARAGUS

4 boneless, skinless half-chicken breasts

Paprika

1 teaspoon vegetable oil

1/2 teaspoon sesame oil

1 cup plus 2 tablespoons reduced sodium chicken broth

1 medium onion, sliced

1 medium clove garlic, minced

1 tablespoon chopped fresh dill or 1 teaspoon dried dill weed

1 pound fresh asparagus

Boiling water

1 tablespoon cornstarch

1 jar (2 ounces) sliced pimentos, drained

1 cup dry orzo (rice shaped pasta), cooked (3 cups)

Rinse chicken breasts and pat dry; remove any excess fat. Lightly sprinkle chicken with paprika. In large non-stick skillet sprayed with non-stick cooking spray, heat oils. Quickly brown chicken on both sides, over medium-high heat, about 5 minutes. Reduce heat; add 1 cup broth, onion, garlic and dill. Cover; simmer 10 to 12 minutes until chicken is tender. Meanwhile, trim or break off asparagus spears at tender point; rinse. In large skillet, in boiling water to cover, cook asparagus until crisp-tender, about 3 to 5 minutes. Do not overcook. Drain and rinse under cold water. Combine cornstarch with remaining 2 tablespoons broth; stir into chicken mixture. Add pimientos. Cook, stirring, until sauce thickens. On 4 individual plates or serving platter, arrange chicken breasts on hot cooked pasta. Add asparagus spears to sauce in skillet; heat briefly. Arrange asparagus on plates and serve sauce over chicken, pasta and asparagus. Garnish with fresh dill, if desired. Makes 4 servings.

Each serving contains 319 calories, 32g protein, 6g fat, 34g carb, 79mg sodium, 62mg cholesterol. From California Asparagus Commission.