Asparagus has been eaten around the world as long as we have written records. Preferences have evolved, from thick to thin and green to white to purple, and back. Just like fashion, every culture has their own take on how to best enjoy the grassy taste of spring.
The Romans grew large stalks, ate them roasted, and spread them with their empire. Across Europe, tastes shifted regionally over time with the continent generally preferring thicker stalks while English records referred to thin stalks, according the Oxford Companion to Food. From Europe, asparagus worked its way to Asia, particularly China and Vietnam, with colonization. One homesick French emigre left us a creamy Franco-Vietnamese asparagus soup with crab. Eventually, asparagus became popular in the Americas around the mid-nineteenth century where thinner stalks were commonly chosen. On the other hand, fashionable Parisians in the early twentieth century used to revere “tasteless” enormous asparagus stalks from Argenteuil that weighed as much as 1.25 lb (500 grams). They were a full 7 inches (18 cm) in diameter, and primarily a conveyor of butter or rich sauces like Hollandaise. Today, thicker asparagus that needs peeled is still eaten across the Pond, while Americans are more inclined to eat the thinner, labor-free stalks.
Historically, asparagus had a reputation of being medicinal. Partly because of the “asparagus pee” effect (which I don’t really believe it, so clearly I won that genetic lottery), but doctors and apothecaries likely noticed that it helped revive people after a long winter of limited fresh foods. Asparagus is a major source of nutrients like fiber, folate, vitamin C, vitamin A, and vitamin K, all nutrients that a salt pork and potato diet lacks. It’s still a very healthy food, with relatively few calories for a lot of nutrients.
Green asparagus is eaten around the world, but white is particularly popular is Europe. Just like with endive and leeks, the farmers bury the stalks to keep light from stimulating chlorophyll production, blanching them as they grow. Purple is occasionally available, but more often you’ll see green stalks tipped with purple. The green varieties tend to have a slightly stronger fresh grass flavor, which I prefer, but all colors are delicious.
Today, it’s best known as a sign of spring. Germans have an entire season named after it, so I recommend visiting Germany in June, when you can partake of the glory of excessive asparagus. Typically, you’ll find it steamed or boiled, served with the previously mentioned Hollandaise sauce, maybe with eggs or new potatoes. Salads are commonly eaten on this side of the Atlantic, and Americans have the reputation of being the primary consumers of raw asparagus (best with very fresh, very tender tips). Other destinations for the vegetable include sitr-frys, grills, risottos, soups, pizzas, pastas, and egg dishes like omelettes, fritattas, and quiches. Roasted asparagus is particularly popular among the restaurant crowd, but I think the technique overpowers the natural flavor. Some complementary flavors include fish sauce, lemon, mushrooms, onions, shallots, green onions/scallions, and artichokes. (One of the greatest sandwiches I’ve ever eaten was Artichoke White Bean Spread with Simple Semi-Steamed Asparagus with Garlic and lemon juice on whole wheat bread.)
However you prefer your asparagus, now is the time to buy it in the Northeast! Try it raw, cooked, steamed, roasted, or in a multitude of mixed dishes. Thick asparagus typically needs to be peeled, but it works better for roasting or longer cooking times. Thinner stalks cook very quickly, so watch them carefully. Always select asparagus that is smooth (wrinkled stalks indicate dehydration, and it has not been properly stored or has just been sitting around too long). Enjoy!
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