Asparagus: Food of the gods

(Photo provided — Yvona Fast)

It’s here! Spring! Everything is turning verdant green and flowers are blooming in forest and garden! Farm stands are teeming with potted plants and flowers. But wait – there are also bunches of green stalks!

We have been expectantly waiting for the green shoots to come up through the soil. On Friday, the first few tender stalks popped up. What a delicacy! On Saturday, we found asparagus at an area farm stand.

Yes, supermarkets have sold fresh asparagus for a few weeks now. But the stalks taste best eaten right after being picked, because asparagus begins to lose both crispness and flavor the minute it is harvested.

The tender, succulent shoots are the nobility of the vegetable world. Ancient Egyptians cultivated it as an offering to the gods. The distinctive flavor was coveted by such historical figures as Julius Caesar, Louis XIV of France and our own Thomas Jefferson. King Louis XIV was so fond of it that he had his gardeners grow asparagus in greenhouses so he could eat it year-round. Asparagus grown thus, with no light, is known as blanched asparagus; the spears are white with a more delicate flavor. The blanched spears lose a lot of their nutritional value, so our garden-fresh, sun-soaked variety, with a stronger flavor, is better.

Few gardeners grow this delectable vegetable, because it takes three full years between first planting and harvesting. It needs sun and sandy, well-drained soil. Once established, however, this hardy perennial needs little attention besides weeding and a little fertilizing. Now that the stalks are ready, for the next few weeks we’ll be on an asparagus diet – eating the tender shoots at least once, if not twice, each day in salads, stir-fries, frittatas, quiche and other dishes.

If you, too, are on an asparagus diet this time of year, you may notice a funny smell to your urine. Don’t panic. You’re not ill with some strange disease. This is due to a sulfur containing amino acid, a chemical compound known as methanethiol or methyl mercaptan. Don’t let this stop you from eating asparagus, which contains more folic acid than any other vegetable, along with other important nutrients like potassium, thiamine, vitamins A, C, and B6, and a powerful antioxidant, glutathione.

Garden-fresh spears require almost no cooking; the tender tips are great added to salads or grilled in sandwiches. Or use in a stir fry; cut the spears diagonally in half-inch pieces, and stir-fry in olive oil, stirring, in a wok or a skillet, on medium-high heat, for 2-5 minutes until crisp-tender.

Asparagus Chicken Stir-Fry for Two

Ingredients:

Several stalks asparagus – about 3 cups after trimming and slicing

1 Tablespoon olive oil

4 – 6 baby Portobello mushrooms

1 chicken breast

1 Tablespoon (or more) soy sauce

1 bunch chives

Directions:

Cut off tough ends of asparagus. Rinse. Cut in 1-inch pieces. Set aside.

In large skillet, heat the oil over medium heat. Slice mushrooms. Add and cook3 to 5 minutes.

Add chicken and brown quickly on each side. Remove to cutting board. Cut in 1″ chunks. Return to skillet. Add more oil if needed, and / or a little chicken broth and the soy sauce. (I keep ice cube trays of chicken broth for this purpose). Add the asparagus and cook until chicken is cooked through and asparagus is tender, about 5 minutes.

While chicken is cooking chop chives; add to skillet.

Serve over cooked rice, millet, barley or other cooked grain, or cooked pasta (prepare in advance so it will be ready).

Main Dish Asparagus and Grain Salad

Because asparagus begins to lose flavor right after it is picked, this salad is best with very fresh asparagus, from your garden or from the Farmer’s Market.

Ingredients:

Grain:

1/2 cup Quinoa, millet, rice or other grain

1 cups water

1/4 teaspoon sea salt

Directions:

Place grain, water and salt in saucepan. Bring to a boil. Lower heat to simmer, stir, cover and cook until liquid is absorbed. This will depend on the type of grain you’re using, so check package directions. When done, transfer to salad bowl and stir in the dressing while its still hot.

Fresh lemon dressing:

2 Tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 Tablespoon Dijon style mustard

Juice of 1 lemon

1 Tablespoon honey or real maple syrup

1 / 4 teaspoon salt

dash of freshly ground black pepper

Directions:

Make dressing and prepare vegetables while grain cooks. To make the dressing, whisk together the olive oil, mustard, juice of half a lemon, salt and pepper. Pour over cooked grain in salad bowl and stir to coat.

Salad:

1 pound fresh Asparagus tips

1 red bell pepper

1 yellow bell pepper

1 / 2 Vidalia onion or 1 bunch chives or scallions

Several olives, optional, for Greek-style

Queso fresco or feta cheese (1/2 cup to 1 cup, crumbled)

Directions:

Prepare vegetables. Cut off asparagus ends, wash stalks to remove sand, and cut into 1/2-inch pieces. Wash peppers, remove seeds, and chop. Peel and chop onion; rinse and chop chives. Quarter olives, if using.

Stir vegetables into the bowl with grain and dressing. Mix well. Garnish with cheese.

Author of the award-winning cookbook Garden Gourmet: Fresh & Fabulous Meals from your Garden, CSA or Farmers’ Market, Yvona Fast lives in Lake Clear and has two passions: cooking and writing. She can be reached at www.wordsaremyworld.com or on Facebook as

Author Yvona Fast.

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