Bouquets of roses make an appropriate fuss, but this Mother’s Day, just make mine asparagus. Sounds ridiculous at first blush, but dig a little deeper, and you’ll see this elegant looking vegetable, prized for its delicious flavor, is tailor made for moms.
If mom is watching her figure, a generous five-spear serving of asparagus will only cost her about 25 calories. If she’s of child-bearing age or perhaps pregnant right now, she’ll get a super dose of folic acid, a B vitamin important for prevention of birth defects, and a significant amount of the antioxidant glutathione, which is linked to cancer prevention. Asparagus is also a good source for vitamin C, thiamin, and vitamin B6.
Does mom ever get a case of puffy ankles or swollen feet? Well, bring out the asparagus! It acts as a natural diuretic, efficiently flushing the excess fluid from those uncomfortably enlarged tissues. Once the diuretic effect kicks in, don’t be alarmed if the urine takes on an usual odor. Asparagus contains a sulfur compound (also present in onions and garlic) that releases this scent once it is broken down in the digestive tract. Not everybody has this experience – apparently your genetic makeup determines whether or not you body can break down the substance. At any rate, it’s nothing to worry about.
Asparagus is one of the first fresh vegetables to come into season the minute spring arrives. If you’re stationed in California or Washington State your commissary may have fresh, locally grown spears available as early as February, with the season in full swing from April through May. The growing season for the Midwest and East starts a little later, but extends though July.
If you happen to be stationed in Germany, it’s almost impossible to miss asparagus season. From late April to the end of June nearly every restaurant you see will have a sign posted heralding their spargel (asparagus) menu of the day, and many cities and villages hold spargel festivals. Germans love white asparagus, which is basically the same as green, except that the developing shoots of white asparagus have been protected from exposure to direct sunlight. The other big difference is its flavor – very smooth and delicate, but very deep and rich. European commissaries routinely have both green and white asparagus on hand, but since the white variety is not yet widely available in the states, your stateside commissaries may not. If your commissary doesn’t have it, ask your produce manager if it’s possible to get it.
Whether white or green, choose the freshest looking spears you can find – ones with smooth, tender skin, compact, tightly closed, pointed tips, and cut ends that are not overly dry. Choose thick or thin spears depending on how you plan to cook them. Thin asparagus (no bigger than the size of your little finger) are best steamed, boiled, sautéed, stir-fried, or microwaved, while thicker spears are better suited for roasting or grilling.
Once purchased, get the asparagus home and refrigerated as soon as possible, as spear toughening occurs rapidly at room temperature. To keep the spears crisp and fresh, store them standing upright in a cup, a plastic glass or similar container. Add about an inch of water to the bottom of the container, and cover the spears, from the tips down, with an unsealed plastic bag. If this is not possible, wrap the cut ends with a damp paper towel and store in a closed plastic bag. For best results, try to use the asparagus on the day of purchase or the next day. If the asparagus is very, very fresh when purchased and very carefully stored it may keep for 3 to 5 days in the refrigerator. But then again, it may not, so using it quickly is always best.
When you’re ready to cook, rinse the asparagus well with cold water, then snap off the tough cut ends in the following manner. Use one hand to grasp a spear at the base (cut end) and hold it upright, gently bend the spear with the other hand placed a couple of inches higher up the stalk toward the tip. The spear will snap at the point where it begins to toughen, usually about an inch, or so, from the cut end. If the spear above the break appears to be very fibrous, use a vegetable peeler to remove the skin up to, but stopping before, the tip.
To Boil: Use a skillet, wide enough to accommodate the asparagus spears in a single layer, and deep enough to cover them with water. Bring the water to a boil (add a teaspoon or two of salt to the water, if desired.) Once the water is boiling rapidly, gently add the asparagus, and bring quickly to a second boil. The cooking time required will vary from about 5 minutes for thin spears to 10 minutes for thick spears. Watch the pot carefully, and the minute a spear turns bright green, you will know it is tender-crisp, and just about perfect. Use a slotted spoon or tongs to remove spears, to a plate as they reach this state of doneness. Be sure to drain any accumulated water from the plate before serving.
To Microwave: Place one pound thin to medium trimmed spears in a 2-quart baking dish. Add 2 tablespoons lightly salted water. Cover and cook on high until tender-crisp, 4 to 9 minutes, rearranging spears (moving those in the center to the outside, and those on the outside toward the center) every 3 minutes. Let stand, covered, for 2 minutes.
To Grill: Use paper towels to pat the rinsed and trimmed spears completely dry, then generously brush with oil. Place the spears crosswise on the grill grate, so they don’t fall through, over a slow wood or charcoal fire. Turn the spears frequently until you can smell the asparagus and one tastes cooked through.
Cooked asparagus can be served hot or at room temperature, and can be enjoyed just as it is, which is the lowest calorie option, drizzled with melted butter, seasoned oil or basic vinaigrette dressing, or topped with classic Hollandaise Sauce, either made from scratch or from one of the packaged mixes your commissary carries.
Make asparagus part of your Mother’s Day meal, and chances are, you’ll be re-creating that part of the celebration again and again throughout the year. Enjoy! Happy Mother’s Day, and I’ll see you at the commissary!