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The Joys of Asparagus

Posted: April 22, 2014

With spring weather, young asparagus spears begin ascending and will be ready to harvest in a matter of days. This green vegetable has some interesting lore.
Green Asparagus

Green Asparagus

On a selected day, a colleague and I round up our dietetic interns and ramble around the county visiting food producers, growers and distributors.  We think it is a valuable experience that helps our interns connect their nutrition knowledge to its agricultural roots, but I was not sure how valued it was for the interns beyond being a day out of the office.  However, last June I received a message from an intern who did the Ag Day ramble with us a few years ago.  She has since found a position as an “in-store dietitian” with a grocery store chain, and loves the work helping the consumer right where they buy their food. She wrote to express thanks for the Ag Day experience and said there is not a day goes by when she does not use the knowledge gained that day in communicating nutrition information to her clients. She mentioned that many people have little experience with food outside of the grocery store or market.

We did the Ag Day ramble again the last week in March, visiting an orchard and farm market as part of our usual itinerary. The interns love learning the history of the farm market, as well as issues the business faces in finding qualified and reliable workers and preventing theft of crops by the public. The business owner noted the order of crops they will be harvesting, with asparagus as their first big crop for the spring; the owner loves asparagus because it is a reliable crop, has a long shelf life, and customers love it. Reason enough to bring a focus to this succulent member of the lily family!

Asparagus has been cultivated for thousands of years and is native to several continents. The young shoots from the underground crown are the edible parts we call asparagus. You may have seen white asparagus, it is not a different variety, but has had the sun blocked during sprouting, which prevents chlorophyll formation. After harvesting, the feathery foliage grows 3 to 5 feet high and produces small red berries. Being a perennial, the crown remains and continues to increase in size; it comes out of dormancy each year to produce more asparagus. A mature plant can be harvested for 8 to 10 weeks, as the shoots are ready, before allowing the ferns to grow undisturbed to complete the growing cycle. A healthy plant may produce for many years.

Choose asparagus spears that are firm and green, with tight tips. Only the bottom of the spear should be white, as it is the part harvested from below the soil level. Asparagus is harvested in Pennsylvania from April through June. Trim stems about 1/4 inch and wash in warm water 2-3 times; pat dry and place in moisture-proof wrapping. Stem ends may be wrapped with a damp paper towel or placed upright in two inches of cold water. Refrigerate and use within 5 days for freshest presentation!

Why asparagus? This vegetable is low in sodium and calories, fat-free and provides some protein and fiber.  Rich in folate, it also offers antioxidants, vitamins A, C, K and potassium.  According to University of Missouri Extension, some bonus nutritional properties are that asparagus contains rutin, which strengthens capillary walls, and inulin (a form of fiber which also acts as a food source for good bacteria in the gut). It also contains a compound called glutathione, which helps detoxify our body, meaning it helps remove harmful substances. Cautions are that it is high in purines, for those at risk for gout or kidney stones, and it is high in sulfur, which gives urine an altered odor, though this is not harmful!

To prepare asparagus, steam, boil, roast, microwave or grill until tender. Try brushing with a flavored oil or vinaigrette dressing or dipping steamed spears in a light creamy dressing. Sprinkle with citrus juice and zest or eat it plain!