Asparagus is a crunchy, distinctly-flavored vegetable with a unique structure and fascinating botanical properties. It has been praised for its simultaneous simplicity and magnificent culinary and medicinal properties for thousands of years.
Asparagus is a member of the Asparagaceae family, a part of the lily family. Its name is derived from the Greek word asparagos, meaning “sprout” or “shoot.” We can thank the Romans for cultivating the crunchy shoots nearly 2,000 years ago, though the vegetable clearly held widespread value in ancient Egypt and Greece. The vegetable gained popularity in France and England in the 16th century, when King Louis XIV became one of its biggest fans. Asparagus eventually reached the New World in the 1850s.
The Asparagus Plant
Referred to as a “spear” due to its pointy tip, an asparagus shoot is the stem of the plant. A plant’s stem helps move water and nutrients between the roots and leaves of the plant. It is also the structure that helps support the growth of leaves, flowers, and fruit. Asparagus’ unconventional structure makes it difficult to identify the parts of the plant as we know them, but in fact, the triangular, scale-like pieces along the stalk are its leaves. These leaves continue to the tips where they cluster to shelter bumpy structures that are immature branches called phylloclades. Past harvest time, the stems will turn woody and those bumpy tips would grow tall and develop into full grown branches, or ferns, which will bear red berries. This is why if you purchase asparagus that was harvested too late, its consistency might be woodier than preferred. These unconventional characteristics of the asparagus plant are structural adaptations that have allowed asparagus to grow in seasonally dry climates.
Asparagus grows from an underground root system called a crown that takes close to three years to yield edible stalks! But, if cared for properly, a crown can bear asparagus for more than 15 years! Asparagus is a unique plant in that spears grow at unbelievable speeds--under the right temperature conditions, asparagus can grow 10 inches in 24 hours! Asparagus requires special harvesting by hand, partially due to the fact that stalks grow at different rates.
Ancient civilizations praised asparagus not only for its flavor, but for its alleged medicinal properties. Though you can’t find asparagus at the pharmacy in modern times, there’s no doubt that the vegetable is packed with nutritional value for our bodies. The spears are rich in vitamin K and folate, which helps our bodies form healthy new cells. It is also a good source of vitamin A, with additional iron and dietary fiber content. The spears are known for being exceptionally high in antioxidants, which are chemicals believed to prevent disease such as cancer.
Then there’s the mystery of a certain distinct smell that has a lot of folks wondering, why does this healthy, delicious, praiseworthy vegetable make my pee smell so terrible? Asparagus contains asparagusic acid which our body metabolizes into a compound called methanethiol, giving off a strange odor in our urine. However, genetic differences between us means that not all of us produce enough of it to create a smell, and not all of us are actually able to smell it!
Asparagus comes in different varieties, including green, purple and white. The white variety gets its color (or lack thereof) from being grown under the soil and therefore blocked from exposure to the sun. This variety is more popular in Europe, but can be increasingly found in specialty stores and farmers markets in America.
How to Eat Asparagus
Yet another attribute of asparagus that makes it such a rockstar is its simplicity and versatility in the kitchen. Even Emperor Augustus of the Roman Empire acknowledged the easy preparation of the vegetable by coining the phrase, “As quick as cooking asparagus.” Indeed, the vegetable requires only very light cooking, but can be eaten anywhere along the spectrum , from raw to roasted to lightly steamed. Try sauteing it as a side dish or, for pasta, getting creative with asparagus ribbons in your salad. For the best tasting asparagus, purchase it as fresh as possible. Like all fruits and vegetables, asparagus’s flavor diminishes over time after it is picked, the difference being that these shoots lose their flavorful sugars even more rapidly than most. Purchase shoots from your farmers market from May through June in New York State when they are in season for the most recently-picked harvest. Look for shoots with tight buds; those harvested after buds begin to open will have a woody texture. Though we recommend eating those spears as soon as possible, for best storage, trim the ends and place into a cup of water. Place a plastic or Ziploc bag loosely over the top, and set in the fridge. Just remember, the sooner you eat, them the tastier they will be!