One of the more inspiring and taste-bud titillating moments for every food lover is the first glimpse of each year’s asparagus crop coming into market. Whether you gather it in your backyard, bundle it at your local farm stand or pop it in the cart at the neighborhood “Super Industro-Mart,” my guess is that you don’t need much arm twisting to get that first verdant spear into your mouth.
Now, how about your kids? Uh huh, I thought so. Green, crunchy vegetables may not be high on your children’s list of fave foods, but that can change in a hurry. A Harvard Graduate School of Education study definitively quantified some welcoming news. Kids who help their parents with the cooking of family meals, share mealtime and help make decisions about the family food program are less finicky eaters and eat a healthier diet than their uninvolved counterparts.
Additionally, they get better test scores, are more open-minded regarding new ideas and are more accepting of other cultures. Guess what? Cooking with your kids is fun and allows you to spend real, quality time with them. Cooking even allows a parent to introduce ideas about math, history, physics, biology, sociology and anthropology into the family dialogue.
Think about it. Every ingredient tells a story. The easy first step might be chocolate chip cookies, but where there’s a risk there’s a rewardwhat about your favorite green vegetable, asparagus?
A is for Asparagus
Asparagus is a member of the lily family. It is a grass, and in the same genetic family as leeks, garlic and onions. Asparagus is a perennial, gathered in the wild since the Stone Age, and it was one of our first foraged foods. Asparagus grows almost everywhere; about 300 species exist, some poisonous, some ornamental, but asparagus officinalis is the edible type that we are most familiar with, whether green, purple or white.
White asparagus is the same plant as the green varietal, but grown in loose piles of loamy soil, mounded up as the stalk grows, preventing sunlight from ever coming in contact with the spear. This prevents photosynthesis from occurring, keeping the plant white, the tips closed and the flavor slightly more acidic and bitter. The Belgians and the French love this stuff!
But it was the Romans who were first wildly passionate about asparagus. They developed elaborate gardens and wonderful recipes for the slender stalk, including slicing it raw into salads. They valued asparagus not just for its culinary properties but also for its medicinal benefits (officinalis translates from the Latin as “of the dispensary”), especially as a cleansing agent for the kidneys and renal system.
The Romans must have figured that anything so tasty on the way in and so aromatic on the way out (asparagus is infamous for making your pee smell funny) had to be good for you. And they were right: Asparagus is loaded in minerals and vitamins A, C and E and is an excellent detoxifier.
The Western Europeans introduced asparagus to the Russians, and in 1779 Peter the Great codified dozens of asparagus recipes in the first Russian cookbook. When the cultural doors opened back to the West, asparagus became all the rage. By the mid-19th century, asparagus was well on its way to becoming the vegetable star that it is today.
American sensibilities are more inclined to popularize those things that are rare or difficult to create. Asparagus by its very nature fits the bill.
Asparagus doesn’t yield a crop until the complex maze of roots – called a ball – is 3 years old, but then it makes up for lost time. Miraculously, asparagus can grow up to 14 inches on a hot, dry day, sprouting from the soil in the morning and ready to be harvested as a mature stalk by nightfall!
Asparagus requires careful tending and hand harvesting. It must also be farmed in a three-field fashion: one field waiting to mature, one field active for cultivation and one field lying fallow.
Asparagus is available year round these days thanks to the California desert crop and the South American harvests, but the ultimate asparagus is undoubtedly the first shoots of the year that make their way to your local farm stand.
The challenge to the cook is to emphasize the color, texture, flavor and healthful benefits of the asparagus, to know how to select, store and preserve quality. It seems a sin to lose the crisp bright snap of even one spear.
Asparagus is a plant stem, as its Persian name asparag – meaning stalk – suggests. You need to look for tight tips and small leaves (on the side of the stalk) that cling to its body. Look for cut ends that are moist, not frayed, browned or dry. Spears should be smooth, not wrinkled.
Storing asparagus is simple. Keep the stalks in the refrigerator, standing in a glass or jar with a few inches of water and tented with a plastic freezer bag. Since vegetables really do breathe and have their own metabolism, we must slow these functions down to preserve freshness. Cold temperatures between 30 and 40 degrees in a moist environment will limit respiration and water loss.
When it comes to cooking, do you peel your ends? You can. It improves texture, but some purists love the crunch and contrast of the woodier end of the spear. I believe in snapping the spears to find the natural break point. I use the stem-end pieces for soups or sauces and steam the upper portions of the stalks over salted water. Steaming makes for tastier tips. They are done cooking when the cut end of the spear is softened.
Roasting and wok sauteing are my two favorite techniques for preparing asparagus. Because all moist-heat cooking allows for a flavor exchange between the solids and the liquids, the very nature of dry-heat cooking makes for a greater natural flavor concentration and higher vitamin retention. The caramelizing that takes place in either technique yields a heightened level of contrast with the sweet moist interiors of the spears. So get the family together, start snapping and don’t let the warp speed of modern life stop you from spending quality time in the kitchen with your kids.
Wok-Tossed Asparagus in Black Bean Sauce
- 1 lb. asparagus
- 3 tbs. salted Chinese black beans, gently crushed
- 3 tbs. sherry or sake
- 1 tbs. sugar
- 1 golf-ball-sized nugget of fresh ginger, peeled and sliced thinly
- 1 clove garlic, sliced thinly
- 2 dried hot chiles (if you like more heat, crush them slightly)
- 1 tbs. sesame oil
- 1 tbs. peanut oil
- 1/3 cup sliced scallions
- Trim and slice the asparagus in 1/3 increments on a 45 degree angle. Leave the tips whole. Place a wok over high heat for 5 minutes to preheat, add the peanut oil and swirl. Oil should be smoking.
- Add the chiles, ginger, garlic and sugar. Toss once or twice and add the asparagus, spreading in a single layer in the wok. Toss every 30 seconds or so for a few minutes, keeping the heat high.
- Add the black beans, sherry and sesame oil. Let liquid reduce to a glaze around the asparagus. This should take 20-30 seconds. Add the scallions, toss, adjust seasonings with salt and toasted sesame seeds if you like.
- Serve plattered.
Even your kids can handle this simple preparation! Brush 2 lbs. of asparagus with just enough olive oil to coat sparingly. Sprinkle with sea salt. Roast on a cookie sheet for 7-8 minutes in a 500-degree oven. While the asparagus is roasting, combine 8 ounces of thinly shaved cremini mushrooms with 2 tbl. of fresh thyme, 2 tbl. of fresh lemon juice, 6 tbl. of olive oil and salt and pepper. Try adding 1 tbl. of truffle oil for an elegant touch. Arrange the asparagus on a platter, arrange the mushroom mixture on top of the spears and garnish with shaved curls of Reggianno Parmesan. Or, if your kids aren’t mushroom fans, serve this mixture on the side.