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Column: Steamed or roasted, enjoy asparagus while in season


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Ah, spring. Dare I hope it is finally here? The signs are encouraging: The air is gradually getting warmer; daylight appears earlier and stretches longer into the evening; hummingbirds are returning to our yards. In my mind, the most solid piece of evidence that spring has sprung is I can’t open a newspaper or magazine without reading yet another creative recipe for preparing asparagus.

Becky and I have been enjoying this season’s asparagus for a while now. We planted some asparagus crowns six years ago. Our information suggested we wait at least two seasons before harvesting, and although it was difficult to watch the spears push their way up through the dirt without taking a few, we endured the obligatory time which allowed the plants to grow and establish a healthy crown.

Asparagus is with us in edible form for six maybe seven weeks. After that, the buds start to “fern out” and the shoots become woody. But during that sweet spot of asparagus abundance, we eat it just about everyday in some form or another. That’s when all those recipes come in handy. We sauté it, roast it, steam it and bake it. We add the various herbs, spices, or cheeses, the recipes suggest. We mix it with pasta or rice or we make asparagus soup. Or we simply enjoy the taste of asparagus boiled briefly with a little salt, pepper and a smidgen of butter.

Asparagus officinalis is a gift to us from Europe, north Africa and western Asia. The word comes from the Greeks who got it from the Persians who probably got it from somewhere else, and it means “sprout” or “shoot.” It has been used as a food and as a medicine since ancient times.

Asparagus is pictured on an Egyptian tomb from 3000 B.C. A recipe for cooking asparagus is found in the oldest surviving cookbook dating from the third century A.D. The Greeks, Romans and Mediterranean cultures in the south to as far north as the tribes of Germany, Ireland and Britain harvested it for food. The plant likely made its way to America on board the ships of early English settlers.

The Roman Emperor Augustine must have held a special place in his heart for asparagus. He created the “Asparagus Fleet” to ship it around the empire, and when he wanted something done quickly, he commanded it be done “faster than cooking asparagus.”

I had never heard that expression, but I think it could be a useful addition to our language. It makes sense, too, because most recipes suggest a short cooking time to best reveal the subtle flavors of the plant. Another facet of the expression’s meaning might be that during the growing season, asparagus grows so fast that occasionally you can harvest it twice a day.

As anyone who has eaten asparagus can attest, there is a peculiar effect from ingesting the food. As Benjamin Franklin observed in a letter to the Royal Academy of Brussels: “A few stems of asparagus eaten, shall give our urine a disagreeable odour.”

This is due to certain chemical compounds in asparagus which are metabolized and give it a very specific smell. Although the French writer Marcel Proust wrote that asparagus “... transforms my chamber pot into a flask of perfume,” I think most people would agree with Ben Franklin that it is not a pleasant smell.

But it is a such a small downside compared to the pleasures of enjoying asparagus. Judging from the popularity — per capita consumption in the U.S. has increased by 40 percent since 1998 — it must be a price people are willing to pay.

This is the season for asparagus. So if you enjoy it, or you just want to try out some of the recipes floating around, now is the time to act. Don’t wait or it will be gone. Rush to the grocery or market “faster than cooking asparagus” and get some today.

Norman Knight, a retired Clark-Pleasant Middle School teacher, writes this weekly column for the Daily Journal. Send comments to letters@dailyjournal.net.

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