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Asparagus is a vegetable, belonging to the group of sprout vegetables and the botanical family of Asparagaceae. It is a vegetable with a very long tradition. It has been known as a delicate food and natural remedy for over 2000 years. The sprout of a herbaceous perennial plant has been cultivated in monastery gardens and was popular for its draining and blood-cleansing properties. Its nutrients, like niacin or folic acid, make it revitalising and rejuvenating. Until the beginning of the 19th Century only green asparagus was known. Nowadays some countries like Germany prefer white asparagus.

All asparagus varieties cultivated today derive from wild asparagus. It is found mainly in Southern Europe. Sometimes it is available for sale, mainly when ordered, but it is much more expensive than domesticated asparagus. Wild asparagus is green, very thin and thicker at the top. It does not have to be peeled and may be served blanched without any seasonings. When treated carefully the aroma of wild asparagus is matchless. The Greek probably discovered it in antiquity. They found a delicacy that did not have to be cultivated, and called it asparagos, a word derived from the Persian asparag meaning sprout or shoot.

The colour of asparagus depends mainly on the growing method. Spears that are exposed to sunlight, form chlorophyll and turn green. For white asparagus the spears are grown in warm, sandy and loose earth mounds (this technique is called hilling) to prevent photosynthesis. Shortly before the spears pierce the mounds they are harvested. The asparagus is freed from earth with the hands and cut with a special knife. The holes in the earth mounds are then closed again. The European season for white asparagus is roughly the beginning of May until the end of June.

Where asparagus grows on top of earth mounds and is only exposed to the sunlight for short periods of time it develops a purple to purplish-green upper part.

Asparagus of high quality should be of even growth, straight and with a firm, closed head. Thin spears may be a sign of dry conditions during growth. The cut ends should be fresh, smooth, and show no spots.

To keep asparagus for a couple of days, it should be wrapped in a damp towel and stored in the vegetable cooler within the refrigerator so it doesn't dry out.

Asparagus of perfect quality needs a large amount of work and know-how - not only during growth but also for a perfect preparation.

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Preparation of green asparagus

Asparagus can be prepared and served in many different ways. Every culture has its own preparation methods and recipes. In Asian countries it is often stir-fried, in America and Australia many people barbecue green asparagus. In European countries and especially in Germany asparagus is mostly served blanched. This is usually seen as the best preparation method to bring out the unique flavour of asparagus.

With green asparagus only very thick spears have to be peeled. Portions of the asparagus are bound together with kitchen string. The bundles should not fall apart during cooking but if they are bound to tight, the spears break. The spears are then cut with a sharp, plain knife, so that they are all of the same length. The asparagus bundles are blanched in large amounts of boiling water. The water is seasoned with salt, sugar and butter. The boiling water should not contain lemon juice as it does when white asparagus is blanched. Lemon juice oxidises with the chlorophyll and the asparagus turns grey.

Green asparagus should be eaten al dente. It is blanched only shortly, which preserves the high vitamin C content. Green asparagus contains more vitamin C than white asparagus because of the longer exposure to sunlight.

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Preparation of white asparagus

The lower part of the asparagus spears is cut off with a special asparagus peeler. To peel it, the head of the spear is taken in one hand so that the spear rests on the arm. Asparagus is peeled from the head to the cut end. The upper part is peeled thinly, the lower part thicker. Especially when peeling large amounts, the peeled spears should be kept in water to prevent them from drying out. The boiling water is seasoned as for green asparagus but fresh lemon juice is also added. Lemons should always be peeled as citrus peel contains bittering agents that spoil the taste of the asparagus.

Asparagus is often cooked in special asparagus pots with steamer baskets, where the spears stand up or lie down. The steamer basket allows easy removal of the asparagus from the boiling water. A regular pot with a large diameter works well though. The asparagus should not be pressed into the pan. Cooking times vary between 10 and 15 minutes, depending on the thickness of the spears. White asparagus tastes best when cooked soft, and not al dente like white asparagus.

Asparagus peelings may be used to cook a good stock that can be used as a base for soups or as blanching water. The peelings should be washed and boiled for 10 to 15 minutes. They should then be strained immediately through a fine sieve. When they are cooked too long or left in the stock bittering agents spoil the stock.

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