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Seasonal asparagus is another healthful choice in veggies

May 14, 2008|By LYNN LITTLE

Asparagus, the vegetable with the braided tip, can add variety to your healthy vegetable choices.

Asparagus belongs to the lily family, together with onions, leeks and garlic. Its name comes from Greek and means "sprout" or "shoot."

Asparagus is found in three different colors: green, white and purple. The most common type is green. It's slightly sweet in flavor with a tender, crisp texture. It is grown in sunlight where photosynthesis makes its color green.

White asparagus is considered a delicacy in Europe. It costs almost twice that of green asparagus due to its limited supply. White asparagus is green asparagus that is grown in dark conditions or buried in mounds of dirt to deprive the plant of sunlight; sunlight creates chlorophyll, which produces a green color in plants. Purple asparagus has a fruitier flavor, with 20 percent more sugar than the green; its purple color is due to an anthrocyanin pigment.

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Asparagus has many healthy benefits. It has a positive effect on the kidneys, liver and bowel by functioning as a natural diuretic and laxative. Therefore, the vegetable is helpful in reducing constipation, bowel disorders and symptoms of diabetes. The vegetable contains glutathione, which is an antioxidant, and is believed to prevent some forms of cancer. Asparagus is rich in vitamin A, C and E, and contains folate, calcium, iron and dietary fiber. It is free from fat and cholesterol and averages 4 calories per spear.

After harvesting, asparagus deteriorates rapidly unless it is kept cold. Asparagus should either be refrigerated or displayed on trays with stalks standing in several inches of cold water. In outdoor markets, display trays should be in the shade.

The most commonly found asparagus is green. The best quality asparagus spears are firm with deep green or purplish tips that are closed and compact. Partially open or wilted tips are the signs of aging. Avoid excessively sandy spears as grains of sand can lodge in the tips and may be difficult to wash out. Stalks should stand straight, be green for most of their length, and be round in cross-section. Flat or twisted stalks are often tough and stringy.

Asparagus will lose about half its weight once it's trimmed and cooked. For a main dish, buy at least one pound for two people; as a side dish, one pound of asparagus will serve three to four people.

Keep asparagus cold to preserve tenderness and as much of its natural sweetness and vitamin C content as possible. Wrap the stalk bottoms in a damp paper towel and store in the refrigerator crisper. It is best to eat asparagus the day you buy it; the flavor can diminish noticeably with each passing day. However, it will keep for four to five days if refrigerated.

To prepare asparagus, wash in cool running water. If the tips have any sand in them, dunk them in and out of cool water, then rinse thoroughly. Cut or break off the tough, white, stem ends. Remove any loose scales.

Cook stalks quickly by tying in a bundle and standing on the stem end in a half-inch of boiling water. If the asparagus are tied into a bundle, it will be easier to handle. By steaming asparagus with this method, the stalks will be heated more intensely than the delicate tips.

Cook uncovered for the first three minutes, then cover and cook to crisp-tender stage. To test for doneness, pick up a spear with kitchen tongs. If it bends just slightly, it's done.

After cooking, lift out the spears and let them drain for a minute on a paper towel. If you plan to serve the asparagus cold, plunge it immediately into cold water to stop it from cooking further and then refrigerate.

Asparagus can be cooked in the microwave. Arrange a pound of spears in an oblong microwaveable dish, with the tips pointing toward the center. Add a half cup of water and cover with microwave plastic wrap. Cook for two or three minutes, then, unless you have a rotating tray in your microwave, rotate your plate 180 degrees and cook for another three or four minutes. Total cooking time is five to seven minutes.

Asparagus also can be stir or steam-fried or grilled.

Serve asparagus with simple light seasoning, rather than a heavy cream or butter sauce. Use any of the following seasonings in small amounts until you find your preferences: almond, dry mustard, nutmeg, tarragon, caraway seed, garlic, onion, curry, lemon or sour cream. For suggestions and recipes for preparing asparagus, visit www.asparagus.org.

If you want to store fresh asparagus so you can enjoy it through the summer and winter, freezing is the preferred preservation method. After washing and trimming the stalks, blanch small spears two minutes, medium spears three minutes, and large spears four minutes. Then quickly cool in ice water at least the same length of time as blanched. Drain well, package, label and freeze.

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