Nurtured in the garden, treated with care in the kitchen, asparagus is a delicate treat
As a kid, asparagus was on the list of my "most hated vegetables." Not only was the flavour too strong but the texture combination of mushy and stringy was enough to leave me gagging. It was not until later, when my palette had become slightly more sophisticated that I dared to try the vegetable again. When cooked properly, it should be crisp-tender with an elegant, yet distinctive taste; it is now one of my favourite vegetables.
When I met my husband (and his vegetable garden) he showed me the new spears poking up out of the soil, ready to be plucked and ripe for eating. I was shocked. It seemed so wrong to harvest a growing shoot, cutting it off clean at soil level, but he assured me that another spear would grow in its place. As long as one or two are left to grow into tall ferns which provide nutrients to the subterranean crown (underground stem), the plant will continue to produce year after year.
Asparagus is one of the first vegetables to grace the spring time table. The bright green spears, often tinged with purple, make a welcome addition to many meals as the flavour is versatile and complements most entrees. In Germany asparagus has attained an unrivalled level of nobility with a spring festival devoted entirely to menus featuring the vegetable, called Spargelfest. Spargel, unlike the apple-green spears that we know and love, refers to white asparagus which is the same plant but with a special twist. White asparagus has been prevented from turning green by depriving it of chlorophyll producing sunlight. This is a labour of love for the white asparagus farmer as the soil around the shoots needs to be piled up to shield the spear from sunlight as it grows. Given that under ideal conditions an asparagus spear can grow 6-8 inches in 24 hours, a close eye must be kept on the white spears poking up out of the ground. This practice began in France during the 1600s and was adopted in Germany and other parts of Europe. White asparagus is harvested before it gets to be too tall and it is therefore a little more fat and stocky than its slender, green cousin. It is also a little more pricey, due to the back-breaking labour involved before and during harvesting. White asparagus has a delicate and refined flavour compared to the assertive earthy bitterness of green asparagus.
The word asparagus comes from the ancient Greek word for stalk or shoot. The perennial is a member of the liliaceae family (lily), along with leeks, onion and garlic. It is native to the East Mediterranean and has been enjoyed since ancient Roman times.