Saturday, November 24, 2012

Sparrow Grass

Frost-covered asparagus on an autumn morning.

"Faster than cooking asparagus."
That phrased was coined about 2,000 years ago by Roman Emporer Augustus to describe quick action. Of course, originally it would have been in Latin.
In those days, asparagus was something on the wealthy could afford to serve, and they valued it highly. Those ancient Roman emporers retained entire fleets of ships simply to transport this delicacy.

These days, asparagus can be on anyone's table, although a pound of organically grown asparagus will set you back five or six bucks. If you have a little garden space that you can devote to a perennial crop, however, you can have your own asparagus for little effort.

Asparagus remains a highly favored delicacy, although it fits in almost anyone's budget. Asparagus season is a mere two months plus two weeks long, and the fresh stuff is highly superior in flavor to canned or frozen asparagus. In Europe, asparagus season is eagerly awaited and celebrated with asparagus festivals (called "spargelfests" in Germany). Some places in the U.S. also have such festivals.

My single asparagus bed, containing 20-plus plants, provides more than enough spears to satisfy any craving the two people in this household may have, plus some to give away. In spite of the much warmer than normal and dry spring, the asparagus patch produced probably as much as it did the previous year.

The asparagus in our garden is "Purple Passion," which produces rich red-purple spears. These spears frequently are about an inch in diameter, and sometimes look rather intimidating. When my sister asked how I got my asparagus so big, I would just shrug. All I do is give it compost or horse manure in the fall after I cut it down, then mulch.

Now I learn that purple varieties of asparagus naturally produce large spears. Which is kind of disappointing -- to learn that I don't actually have a magic touch with it. Purple varieties also tend to be sweeter and have less fiber than green varieties.

Often, those giant spears will curl and deform, creating rather monstrous looking things. The curling and bending is due to mechanical damage -- either you nicked it a bit when using a tool to weed, or some buggy critter chewed on one side a little. The curve goes toward the side where the damage is.

Some people complain that eating asparagus makes their urine smell bad. At one time, it was argued that people differed in the way their bodies processed asparagus, so that some had smelly urine, while others did not. Studies have shown that this is not the case. Pretty much everybody excretes those smelly compounds. It is simply that the large majority of us do not possess the gene that allows us to smell it.

Smell or no smell, asparagus is highly nutritious, and a good source of many vitamins and minerals, including folate, and was once considered a medicinal herb.

Asparagus has been around a long time. Ancient Egyptian friezes thousands of years old show people making offerings of asparagus.

However you like it, lightly steamed, roasted for a brief period, sauteed or in soups, asparagus is good for you, and an easy perennial vegetable.

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