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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, April 18, 2001

Love it tender: Asparagus is back

Associated Press

And we thought it was all up to the red, red robin. Turns out that asparagus is an equally recognizable harbinger of spring.

"It's one of the first fresh vegetables to come up," says Mary Fifer-Fennemore of Fifer Orchards, near Dover, Del.

And although it is elegant and nutritious, asparagus has lost some of its status as a gourmet food because of its growing appeal.

"Years ago it sort of had that reputation of being the high-class vegetable," says Scott Walker, vice president of Jersey Asparagus Farms. "A lot more people are eating it, and a lot more people are developing a taste for it."

Most of all, asparagus is a symbol of healthy eating.

Low in calories and high in flavor, a serving of four asparagus spears (60 grams) contains 10 calories, 1 gram protein, 2 grams carbohydrates and only traces of fat.

It's also rich in vitamin A and riboflavin and a good source of thiamin.

Early American Indians dried asparagus for use later or to make medicine. In dry lands it is especially useful as a natural diuretic, or for bladder and kidney problems. It also contains a factor that prevents small capillary blood vessels from rupturing, making it useful in treating heart problems.

A male hybrid version grown today by Jersey Asparagus Farms is part of a Rutgers University research study of potential leukemia cures.

The plant produces a substance called saponin, which has been shown to stop the multiplication of leukemia cells in preliminary experiments, Walker says.

History of asparagus

According to the group that sponsors the National Asparagus Festival in Michigan, the crop got its name from the ancient Greeks, who used the word to refer to all tender shoots picked and savored while young.

As early as 200 B.C. the Romans had how-to-grow directions for asparagus. They were the first to preserve it by freezing.

The characteristics of asparagus were so well-known to the ancients that Emperor Caesar Augustus described "haste" to his underlings as being "quicker than you can cook asparagus."

As a perennial vegetable, an asparagus plant can thrive in a garden for 15 years or more. The growing takes patience though.

"Not too many people get into it," Fifer-Fennemore says. "There is a lot of expense in planting it and maintaining the bed. It's not like planting squash or potatoes."

Seeds are planted in the spring, and then the plants are transplanted to permanent fields when they are 1 year old or older. Asparagus loves the sun and water, and will grow as much as 1 inch an hour when conditions are right.

Michigan ranks third behind California and Washington in the production of asparagus. Michigan is known as a processing state for asparagus, which means the crop is machine-cut rather than manually harvested as it is elsewhere. Only a small portion of Michigan's crop is sold fresh.

Most restaurants get their fresh asparagus from California during summer, fall and winter, but as the spring continues their orders will be filled with crops from elsewhere, including New Jersey.

• • •

ROASTED ASPARAGUS WITH FRIED SAGE From Jerry Traunfeld's "The Herbfarm Cookbook" (Scribner, $40)

  • 2 pounds fresh asparagus
  • 1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh sage
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
  • Salt
  • 1 cup vegetable or olive oil, for frying
  • 30 fresh medium sage leaves, patted dry
  • 1 wedge Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
  • For the dressing:
  • Thinly sliced zest of 1 large lemon, removed with a zester
  • 3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • 1 tablespoon chopped fresh sage
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper to taste
  • 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Trim the bottoms of the asparagus spears at the point where they turn pale and tough. If the spears are medium to thick, peel the lower two-thirds of the trimmed spears with a sharp vegetable peeler. Thin spears do not need to be peeled.

Place them in a bowl and toss with the chopped sage, olive oil and a light sprinkling of salt. Spread the asparagus in a single layer on a baking sheet and roast until the spears are slightly limp when you hold them from the bottom, about 4 to 8 minutes, depending on their thickness. They will continue to cook once you remove them from the oven. Let cool.

Heat the vegetable oil in a 1 and one-half to 2-quart saucepan to 330 degrees. Drop in half the sage leaves and turn them in the oil with a wire skimmer or slotted spoon. They'll sizzle loudly at first, but if they're dry, they won't splatter. Fry for only 10 to 15 seconds, then remove them to drain on paper towels. Do not let the leaves brown.

Fry the remaining sage leaves and sprinkle them all lightly with salt. They should be crisp when cool. They can be fried up to one day ahead, and stored in an airtight container at room temperature.

Hold cheese wedge in your hand and use a sharp vegetable peeler with light pressure to shave thin curls of the cheese into a bowl. You'll want to shave off 2 ounces, about 1 cup.

To make the dressing, combine all the ingredients except the olive oil in a small mixing bowl, then whisk in the oil.

When ready to serve, toss the asparagus with the dressing in a large bowl. Arrange the dressed asparagus in a fan shape on a serving platter or individual plates. Sprinkle with the cheese shavings and then with the fried sage leaves. Serves 6.