Culinary Tips: Asparagus!
By Jenny Hammer
It’s springtime -- the season for fresh, flavorful asparagus. A member of the lily family, asparagus is related to onions, garlic, leeks, and ornamental flowering lilies. The spears that we eat today (asparagus officinalis) are the domesticated version of wild asparagus (asparagi selvatici) that flourished in the Mediterranean and Asia Minor.
Early Egyptians grew asparagus and included the plant in their art; a 3000 B.C. frieze depicts asparagus spears. The vegetable was a tender delicacy reserved for royalty and elites.
We are lucky California produces this delicious and health-promoting vegetable and that its consumption isn’t limited to the upper echelons of society. We’re also fortunate to live near the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta area, which has traditionally been the signature location for asparagus cultivation in California (check out the Asparagus Festival in Stockton which occurs every April). The rich, peaty soils of the Delta, along with our climate, provide the perfect growing conditions for this odd-yet-edible plant. Modern asparagus spears can rise six to ten inches from their crowns in a single day and, perennials, can continue to produce spears, season after season, for as long as 20-25 years. After its introduction in the 1850s, asparagus quickly became an important crop -- first as a fresh vegetable and later as a canned or frozen one. But why buy canned, frozen, or well-traveled asparagus when fresh is available?
In recent years, as a result of pressure from imported spears, the acreage in California that is planted in asparagus has significantly declined. If we want to keep local farmers continuing to provide a supply of crisply fresh, flavorful spears each spring, higher demand is essential.
By buying California-grown, you’ll get the best quality and will support local people and local economies. Read labels carefully, however; some California farmers (one in Lodi, for example) put their own label on spears that have “Product of Mexico” stamped on the rubber bands. Check. Ask.
And be prepared to pay a little more for “CA Grown” since the harvest of spears is very labor-intensive. They must be cut, individually, by hand. Farmworkers -- those who harvest and those who prepare and pack the spears -- must receive adequate wages. In addition, stricter environmental/health/human safety regulations in our state add to the cost of local asparagus. I think the slightly higher price all this requires is worth it, but you can decide for yourself. Do a taste test between local and imported asparagus; you’ll find the local sample fresher, crisper, and more flavorful.
The culinary possibilities and nutrition of asparagus will also not disappoint. It can be grilled; sautéed; added to soups, omeIets, and fritatas. It adds a distinctly spring-like greenness to whatever you add it to. Baked in tarts, asparagus can create an elegant and visually appealing meal.
Plus, there’s the nutritional bonus. Asparagus is low in calories, a great source of health-affecting things like fiber, folate, vitamins A, C, K, and -- surprisingly -- contains protein. Just half a cup of cooked asparagus contains 2.2 grams of protein, along with 18% of RDA/RDI for vitamin A, 12% for vitamin C, 57% for K, and 34% for folate. Asparagus is also a good source of antioxidants, flavonoids, and polyphenols, which Numerous studies have shown may reduce your risk of chronic disease.
Adding asparagus to this season’s meals is a good culinary tip. Enjoy.
6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) unsalted butter
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
pinch of salt
1/2 pound asparagus spears (about 8 spears)
2 eggs, beaten
1 cup ricotta cheese
2 tablespoons plain yogurt
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon salt
freshly ground pepper, to taste
1 teaspoon grated lemon zest
Preheat oven to 400° F. Fork the butter into the flour and salt to form a pebbly texture. Stir in enough iced water to form a smooth dough. Knead dough on a lightly floured surface for a few minutes. Make into a ball, wrap, and refrigerate for two hours. Then, roll out the pastry to line a 9-inch tart pan. Press the dough firmly into the pan and prick dough (bottom and sides) with a fork. Bake for approximately 10 minutes, until the pastry is firm but still pale. Remove from oven and set aside to cool. Reduce the oven temperature to 350° F.
For the filling, rinse the asparagus spears and snap off the thick, dried-out butts. Then, cut the tops 2-inches from the tips. Cut remaining thick ends of the spears into half-inch pieces. Add the half-inch spear pieces to a pot of boiling water. After one minute, add the 2-inch tops. Simmer all for 4-5 minutes until almost tender. Drain. Refresh under cold running water. Separate out the 2-inch tips from the thicker half-inch pieces.
Beat together the eggs, ricotta, yogurt, and Parmesan. Season with the nutmeg, salt and pepper. Stir in the half-inch asparagus pieces and pour into the pastry shell. Arrange the 2-inch asparagus tips on top. Press them slightly into the ricotta/egg/Parmesan mixture. Bake for 35-40 until the tart is golden. Sprinkle with lemon zest. Serve warm or cold.