Spring is a much anticipated time in my world, as it marks the beginning of Asparagus season. While it’s true that you can find these magically delicious stalks year-round in most supermarkets, wintertime asparagus tends to be tough, bland and expensive. It’s picked before its prime from faraway places like Chile and Argentina, and never quite achieves the sweet and tender qualities of asparagus grown in season from somewhere closer-by. But as it warms up north of the equator, asparagus is more abundant, more affordable and more delicious than any other time of year. Here in New York, the locally-grown asparagus doesn’t hit the farmer’s markets until May-June, but if you live in California or in warmer climes, then April is already Asparagus-hunting season. Get ready to start stalking your local markets for the first crop of pencil-thin spears…
Delicious AND good for you
When I think of asparagus’ many nutritional blessings, the first one that comes to mind is folate. One cup of asparagus (or, the equivalent of ~8-10 spears), contains 260 mcg of this important B-vitamin, which is 65% of the daily value for mere mortals and 43% of the recommended intake for pregnant women. While folate deficiency isn’t an epidemic in the US since the government mandated that enriched flours be fortified with it, it’s certainly not uncommon, and people who don’t eat bread, cereals and pasta regularly may be at particular risk if they’re not eating their 5-a-day of fruits and vegetables. (Yes, that includes the gluten-free crowd, since our GF cereals, breads and pastas are almost never fortified with folate.)
And what’s so darn important about folate, you may ask? Oh, only that it’s an essential component of DNA synthesis. And lest you think that you don’t need much new DNA synthesized, consider this: even on your laziest, most unproductive day, your body makes 200 million new red blood cells, which you need to deliver oxygen throughout your body and prevent anemia. (All of a sudden you don’t feel so unproductive now, do you?) Plus, you’ve got a bajillion cells (OK, that’s not quite a scientific term, but there are lots of them) lining your intestines that need to be regenerated every 3 days and each of those cells contains DNA, so you do the math. It should also be clear by now why folate is so essential for pregnant women, as a growing fetus is generating a heck of a lot of DNA. In fact, folate deficiency during the first 3 weeks of pregnancy (yes, that would be when most women don’t even realize they’re pregnant) is directly associated with neural tube defects (like spina bifida). Are you ready to join me in stalking the asparagus yet?
Folate aside, 1 cup of asparagus has a mere 43 calories, 5g of protein and 3g of fiber. So feel free to gorge yourself on the season’s bounty.
Why the smelly pee?
Of course, you needn’t have gorged yourself on asparagus to know about the strange side effect of this delicious vegetable: Asparagus Pee. (This odd physiological phenomenon was the reason that we chose not to serve asparagus at our wedding, and I’d caution anyone planning a large event to consider doing the same.) The smell is caused by the digestion of a sulfur-containing compound in asparagus called mercaptan, but I was surprised to learn that, according to the book “Why Men Have Nipples,” not everyone has the gene for the digestive enzyme that breaks down mercaptan. In other words, some people don’t experience asparagus pee at all. Next time you have a dinner party, go ahead and take a poll.
My favorite way to enjoy asparagus is simple: sprayed with some olive oil, sprinkled with salt, and grilled. Grilling it on our countertop Cuisinart Griddler (basically, a stainless version of the George Foreman grill) works like magic. They taste divine just plain, but a shaving of fancy parmesan is always a lovely accoutrement. If you have thin stalks, just grill them as they are. But if your stalks are the fat kind, do yourself a favor and use a vegetable peeler to peel down the woody bases a bit before grilling. Otherwise, they can be tough and stringy and may wind up being discarded.
Asparagus risotto is also up there as one of my favorites, but it takes substantially more time and attention, though it’s easy as pie and requires no more than 10 minutes of prep. I save this recipe (see below) for when we’re having company, since you can make a huge batch of it for no extra effort, it can be reheated ad infinitum and is no worse for the wear, and it’s always a crowd pleaser. My husband added the part about the truffle oil at the end, which is an obscenely delicious addition that I can’t say I objected to. I like to serve it alongside seared scallops, which take 5 minutes to make and can be started once your guests arrive and everyone’s ready to eat.
Another riff on the asparagus risotto recipe comes courtesy of Jamie Oliver, who came up with a divine and springy Asparagus, Mint and Lemon risotto. The British seem to like the asparagus/peas and/or mint combo, and for good reason. I still dream about a minted pea and asparagus soup I tasted at a the NYC branch of a London cafe/restaurant called 202. It was so heavenly that I spent weeks trying to recreate it at home. I succeeded, as it turns out, but have since lost the recipe and have been kicking myself ever since…
Truffled Risotto with Asparagus and Peas (adapted from the Sundays at Moosewood Restaurant cookbook)
Serves 4 as a main, more as a side… cooking time ~45-50 minutes.
5 cups stock (vegetable or chicken, as you prefer)
2 TBSP olive or canola oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 1/2 cups arborio rice
1/2 cup dry white wine
1/2 lb asparagus spears sliced into 1/2″ pieces, tips reserved separately (tough bottoms discarded)
1/2 cup frozen peas, preferably petite, defrosted
1/3 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese (optional; the risotto will be plenty creamy without the cheese, so if you want to avoid the dairy or the calories, feel free to leave it out. Alternatively, you can sprinkle some individually on people’s plated servings to their liking and leave it out of the batch itself.)
Black truffle oil to garnish
- Heat the stock in a saucepan, and set aside, simmering on low heat.
- Heat oil in a large stockpot or Dutch Oven over medium heat
- Add onion and saute until translucent (but not brown), about 3 minutes
- Add rice and stir for a minute until coated. Always USE A WOODEN SPOON for stirring when making risotto to prevent rice kernel breakage.
- Add wine and continue stirring until absorbed.
- Add 1/2 cup stock and the asparagus pieces (NOT the tips), and keep stirring constantly until stock mostly absorbed.
- Keep adding stock, 1/2 cup at a time, as the rice absorbs it.
- 5 minutes after adding the asparagus pieces, add the tips.
- Repeat the stock-adding-and-stirring cycle until you’re down to your last 1/2 cup, and then add the peas with that last bit.
- Remove risotto from heat, add the cheese if desired, and plate.
- Drizzle each serving with a touch of black truffle oil
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