Asparagus- the Springtime Wonder Vegetable
Asparagus is one of those veggies that my family and I enjoy cooking and eating during this time of year.
The appearance of fresh asparagus at local farmers’ markets and grocery stores is one of the healthiest signs that spring has indeed arrived, when its shoots break through the soil and reach their 6-8 inch harvest length. The fleshy green spears of asparagus are both succulent and tender and have been considered a delicacy since ancient times. In California the first crops are picked as early as February, although the asparagus season generally is considered to run from April through May, and the growing season in the East and Midwest often extends through July.
Asparagus is a member of the lily family which includes leeks, garlic and onions. It has a spear top with bud-like, compact and pointed head. It may surprise you to know that there are a few hundred varieties of asparagus but only a small number is edible.
Asparagus is not only delicious on its own and in many different recipes, but it is also packed with health benefits and disease-fighting abilities. For starters, it’s loaded with nutrients. Asparagus is an alkaline food which is rich in protein but low in calories and carbohydrates. It is an excellent source of potassium, folic acid, vitamins A, C and K, and traces of vitamin B complex, as well as chromium, a trace mineral that enhances the ability of insulin to transport glucose from the bloodstream into cells. A good source of dietary fiber, asparagus is also rich in niacin, phosphorus and very low sodium. And certainly most impressive is that it is one of those few vegetables that actually has the calcium and magnesium in the ideal ratio of 2:1.
Asparagus is also packed with antioxidants, ranking among the top fruits and vegetables for its ability to neutralize cell-damaging free radicals. This, according to preliminary research, may help slow the aging process. Secondly, this herbaceous plant—along with avocado, kale and Brussels sprouts—is a particularly rich source of glutathione, a detoxifying compound that helps break down carcinogens and other harmful compounds like free radicals. This is why eating asparagus may help protect against and fight certain forms of cancer, such as bone, breast, colon, larynx and lung cancers.
Another anti-aging property of this delicious spring veggie is that it may help our brains fight cognitive decline. Like leafy greens, asparagus delivers folate, which works with vitamin B12—found in fish, poultry, meat and dairy—to help prevent cognitive impairment. In a study from Tufts University, older adults with healthy levels of folate and B12 performed better on a test of response speed and mental flexibility. (If you’re 50-plus, be sure you’re getting enough B12: your ability to absorb it decreases with age.)
One more benefit of asparagus: It contains high levels of the amino acid asparagine, which serves as a natural diuretic, and increased urination not only releases fluid but helps rid the body of excess salts. This is especially beneficial for people who suffer from edema (an accumulation of fluids in the body’s tissues) and those who have high blood pressure or other heart-related diseases.
The most common type of asparagus is green, but you might see two others in supermarkets and restaurants: white, which is more delicate and difficult to harvest, and purple, which is smaller and fruitier in flavor. No matter the type you choose, asparagus is a tasty, versatile vegetable that can be cooked in myriad ways or enjoyed raw in salads. Steaming is traditional, then coating with melted butter or hollandaise sauce. You want make sure to lightly steam, rather than boil, the spears, just enough to turn bright green and maintain firmness. This will preserve the sodium and other minerals in the asparagus, instead of boiling them away. Another option is to cook them without water in stainless steel waterless cookware. Avoid cooking asparagus in iron pots as the tannins in the asparagus can react with the iron and cause the stalks to become discolored. Another way to prepare asparagus is to break in short lengths, and cook quickly in hot oil in a wok and sprinkle with soy sauce or balsamic vinegar. Roasting or grilling asparagus is another delicious way to prepare this delicious and nutrient packed vegetable.
How To Grow Asparagus (Aspargus officianalis)
Believe it or not, asparagus is easy to grow. You can either direct plant seeds, or plant as crowns. Seeds will take 2-3 years before maturing into crowns. Seeds should be planted at a depth approximately three times the diameter of the seed, and best planted at soil temperatures between 61 and 86°F in October in the Southeast. Or plant crowns (roots) 20-40cm apart and a few cm (1 inch) deep in well manured soil in October. The asparagus shoots grow in spring. Harvest the shoots which are bigger than 1-2cm/half-inch in diameter. Leave the rest to grow into the leafy ferns (1.5m/5-6ft tall) which will feed the crowns to give a crop next year. In autumn the ferns will be covered in bright red poisonous berries. Leave the ferns to die down in autumn, then trim off the dead stalks and pile on plenty of rotted manure/compost to give the roots plenty of food to produce new stems in spring. Harvest by cutting off the stalk, close to the ground. From the second or third year you can get an additional crop by letting the first lot of ferns grow, then bending down the stalks to break them. A second crop of shoots will grow and can be harvested. Leave subsequent shoots to grow on to ferns. Asparagus is compatible with Parsley, Basil, Nasturtiums, and Lettuce, but be sure to avoid growing with Garlic and Onions.