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When beautifully formed spears break through the soil in an asparagus bed, they are a sign of a newly flowering spring. A member of the lily family, asparagus has been considered a delicacy for almost 2000 years, experiencing popularity in cultures throughout the world. Today, asparagus is cultivated in most subtropical and temperate parts of the world, particularly in this country and in Mexico, Peru, France, Spain, and other Mediterranean countries.
While the most common variety of asparagus is green, the stalks can also be white or purple. White asparagus is more delicate in flavor and texture. It is grown under a ground covering of soil that blocks its contact with direct sunlight and therefore inhibits the development of chlorophyll, creating its white coloring. It is usually more expensive to purchase because it is labor intensive to grow.
The other edible variety is purple in color and shorter (2 to 3 inches tall) than the green or white varieties. Fruitier in flavor, purple asparagus is full of phytonutrients that provide its color. As with all vegetables, prolonged cooking can leech out nutrients, so the bright purple color may fade.
Asparagus is an excellent source of folate, Vitamins C and K. Especially if you are thinking of becoming pregnant, asparagus can be an important frequent addition to meals; one serving supplies almost 66% of the daily recommended intake of folate. Folate is an essential B-vitamin for proper cellular division.
The spears we purchase in stores are actually harvested shoots that grow straight up from an underground “crown” or root. The shoots are cut off at ground level when they are 6 to 8 inches tall. Look for stalks with deep green or purple-tinted, tightly compacted tips. The spears should be rounded and firm, no more than 1/2-inch diameter. Cut ends should not appear too dry or woody.
For best flavor, use asparagus within a day or two of purchasing. When you get the bunch of spears home, wrap the end of the bundle in a damp paper towel, and place in a plastic bag. Store the bag of asparagus in the back of the refrigerator away from light; exposure destroys its most important nutrient, folate.
You can snap off tough ends of stalks before cooking, as they break naturally where the tender parts of the stalks end. However, that is a somewhat wasteful method; the entire stalk is edible. Peeling the tough skin from the base of the asparagus is a way to reveal additional tender asparagus.
Use a small, sharp knife to cut off the fibrous base of each spear and efficiently remove the peel off the tougher end. Insert the knife under the thicker skin at the base, and work it up toward the tip, making the cut shallower as the skin becomes thinner. The peel should taper off completely about 3 inches from the top of the stalk.
Asparagus makes a beautiful first course, blanched or steamed until tender but crisp and simply served with a pat of butter or light drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkle of sea salt. Cook the stalks until just tender when pierced with the tip of a sharp knife in a large pot or wide skillet of boiling, salted water so they will boil gently. Stir-fry or sauté cut asparagus and add to rice dishes or vegetable medleys. Cold blanched or steamed asparagus is delicious in composed salads, antipasto trays, or pasta salads.
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