In Virginia and Maryland one of the first crops to herald the arrival of spring is fresh asparagus. Stores will display early examples towards the end of February but for the best and cheapest of the harvest wait until April and May. It is rightly regarded as a delicacy amongst vegetables and often comes with a hefty price tag, reflecting not only its luxury status but also the fact that it has to be harvested by hand. A member of the lily family and therefore related to onions, garlic and leeks, the green variety is the most common, but there are also white and purple varieties; and though freezing and canning enable round year availability, there is nothing like the delicate taste of fresh asparagus. Its popularity is undeniable: the United States is the world’s fourth largest grower – about 75% of the country’s crop comes from California – whilst at the same time being the product’s major importer. Asparagus spears don’t react well to over-cooking, though they are amenable to poaching, grilling, and steaming. They are equally at home blended into soup or served cold in a salad, but there are many who will only ever eat their asparagus simply lightly grilled or poached and dipped in melted butter or olive oil. Try it as an antipasti wrapped in paper-thin slices of Parma ham. It was in the lands around the east of the Mediterranean over two thousand years ago that the cultivation of asparagus first began. The Greeks and Romans valued it for its unique delicate flavor and texture, and it was also recognized as possessing medicinal properties. It became popular in England and France during the 16th century and it was brought to America by early colonists at about this time. Many ailments can be prevented and relieved by the healthy nutrients that abound densely in asparagus. Most importantly these include:
- Cancer. Prevention is promoted by the presence of anti-oxidants and glutathione.
- Heart Disease. Regular consumption of asparagus can help strengthen a weak or enlarged heart.
- Rheumatism and Arthritis. Asparagus can provide an anti-inflammatory relief.
Always go for straight, firm spears with tight-closed tips when shopping for asparagus. Thickness of the spear is a matter of personal taste and may depend on how the asparagus is to be prepared. Needless to say, it should as far as possible be eaten fresh, but it may be kept for up to three days without too much deterioration wrapped in plastic and stored in a refrigerator.