Samui Wining & Dining
Knowing Your Onions

Or, in this case, knowing your Asparagus

20First cultivated several thousand years ago in the Mediterranean and Asia Minor, asparagus has long been treasured. Greeks and Romans loved it for its flavour, texture and medicinal qualities. And Roman emperors were said to be so fond of it that they kept special boats for the purpose of fetching it. As well as consuming asparagus when in season, they also had it transported to high altitudes where it could remain frozen until needed.

    Often perceived to be expensive, this vegetable has long been in culinary use, not only for its delicate flavour but also for its diuretic properties. Apicius, who wrote the world’s oldest surviving cook book – De Re Coquinaria – in the 3rd century AD, has a recipe for asparagus included in the text. And the English word ‘asparagus’ derives from the classical Latin, although it was once known as sperage from the Medieval Latin word sparagus. This in turn derives from the Greek aspharagos or asparagus which itself comes from the Persian asparag, meaning ‘sprout’ or ‘shoot’. By the 16th century it had become popular in France and England and was later introduced to North America. Here the name became corrupted to sparrow-grass and is still known by this name in certain parts.

    Nowadays, the top producers are China, Peru, the United States and Mexico, with the Chinese cultivating as much as the rest of the world put together. In terms of quality, Peruvian asparagus is considered the best and it exports more than any other nation. Chinese asparagus tends to be largely for home consumption. Nutritionally, it’s one of the most valuable vegetables. It’s the best vegetable provider of folic acid, which is necessary for blood cell formation and growth, as well as liver disease prevention. Folic acid is also important for pregnant women as it aids in the prevention of neural tube defects such as spina bifida in the developing foetus. Asparagus is also very low in calories, containing fewer than four. It has no fat or cholesterol and is very low in sodium. A great source of potassium and fibre it also contains rutin, a compound that strengthens the walls of capillaries.

 

When it comes to cooking
asparagus, freshness is paramount
and it should be eaten within a day
or so of being picked.

 

      When it comes to cooking asparagus, freshness is paramount and it should be eaten within a day or so of being picked. It can quickly spoil and immediately after picking starts to lose flavour and moisture. Choose asparagus spears with firm and crisp stalks. Tips should be compact and closed and fat spears are just as tasty as thin ones. White asparagus differs only from the green variety in that it has been deprived of light during the growing process. Once any hard woody ends have been removed place the stalks in a pan of boiling salted water and simmer for between 5-8 minutes. Basically, it’s done when a knife can easily pierce the ends and while it should bend a little, it shouldn’t be floppy. If you prefer your vegetables al dente, reduce the cooking time. Traditionally, it’s served with melted butter, hollandaise sauce or with a drizzle of olive oil. It can also be cooked in a double boiler whereby the asparagus is tied in bundles and placed upright. The tips should extend an inch or so above the boiling water and are steamed. Alternatively you can cut the asparagus into half-inch pieces and stir-fry in a wok. Frozen and canned asparagus are also commonly found in supermarkets but are just not the same as their fresh counterparts. These are probably best micro-waved for a few minutes on full power with a little liquid.

      Tasty, nutritionally beneficial and in plentiful supply (around 1.3 million metric tonnes per annum), asparagus is easy to prepare and serve. And if it was good enough for the ancient emperors, it’s certainly good enough for you!

 

Johnny Paterson



 


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