With restrictions lifting, it’s time to get out and check out what has been happening in the vegetable plots and supermarket aisles while we were locked down! New season asparagus are about to make their season debut and the excitement on the ground is palpable! With not much else happening around town, this is an event you can really sink your teeth into!
Asparagus has enjoyed an almost lofty reputation since it was first depicted in Egyptian wall art around 3,000 BC. A revered plant among the Roman upper classes, Greek botanists and early medicine practitioners, asparagus continues to hold its head up high today and is widely available to all people, no matter their standing in the community! Perhaps its spear-like shape gives it an air of superiority or maybe the celebrity chefs made it “all fancy” – whatever the reason, there is a lot to be celebrated once those shoots emerge from the ground and the short-lived asparagus season begins!
In Ireland home-grown asparagus is at its best from the first week of May to the middle of June - roughly 40 days and nights of pure asparagus joy! Local veg grower, Sophie Seel (from Dúil sa Dúlra, Riasc, Ballyferriter) informs me that the season can begin a little later for more westerly counties, so be patient! When its season comes to an end, the spears begin to open and the stems tend to get woody and tough. Like any vegetable, true to its season, asparagus’ timely appearance prepares the body for the bounty of heart-friendly Summer foods that will shortly be in great supply. Rich in rutin, a bioflavonoid, this nutrient strengthens our capillaries and has been used to help lower blood pressure, treat haemorrhoids and varicose veins as well as prevent and treat venous leg ulcers. Another nutrient, folate, much discussed in the media recently, is also in rich supply - a 100g serving of asparagus provides a whopping 67% of our daily requirement. Folate is required to complete red cell formation, reduce levels of homocysteine in the blood and supports the entire nervous system. For women of child-bearing age, folate is well-known for its role in preventing neural tube defects in newborns. Other nutrients of significance include vitamins A, C, E and K, dietary fibre and some minerals.
Good for the Guts
Asparagus is quite the hero in the gut too providing a special type of fibre, called Inulin, in great quantity! Inulin fibre, also known as a prebiotic, does not get broken down in the first segments of the intestinal tract, but makes it way undigested to the large intestine. Once there, it becomes an ideal food source for beneficial bacteria such as Lactobacilli and Bifidobacteria. A healthy colony of such bacteria is associated with better nutrient absorption, lower risk of allergy and lower risk of colon cancer. Most of the vitamin K provided by asparagus as with other greens is in fact created by friendly bacteria in the large intestine – we provide for them and they provide for us, perfect synergy! Vitamin K, most noted for its role in the clotting mechanism is also vital for bone, cardiovascular health and more recently touted for Covid-19.
What's that Smell?
With the asparagus season comes the age-old debate as to whether or not asparagus produces a funny smell in urine. There is some evidence that sulphur containing compounds may be attributed to the odour, but it is far from conclusive and should not deter from enjoying it while it is in season. Furthermore, who knows, perhaps asparagus just gives us a greater sense of smell, either way, why is anyone smelling their pee? Another notable claim to fame is its aphrodisiac power, again, no real evidence and hopefully it has nothing to do with the pee smell. Saying that, Marcel Proust, a famed French novelist in the 19th century claimed that asparagus “had the effect of transforming his humble chamber pot into a bowl of aromatic perfume” – not sure if the ladies would agree! The aphrodisiac effect of asparagus is more likely due to its suggestive shape rather than a special trait although any food that nourishes the blood vessels and circulation will also be beneficial to sexual health, particularly for men.
How to prepare your bounty
Young seasonal asparagus requires very little preparation or cooking. The thinner the stems the quicker it cooks. It is best steamed for a few minutes in a little water standing upright with the thicker ends in the water. This way the tender spear heads are just lightly steamed and impart loads of flavour, while the thicker stem ends get a good cooking. Asparagus is also delicious sautéed in a little butter and fresh herbs. When you buy asparagus, just break off about an inch or two from the end, rinse and wrap the stems in kitchen paper and store in the fridge. Asparagus will keep in the fridge for days and even longer if you place the stems upright in jar leaving the ends in a little water to prevent them drying out. Enjoy!