Asparagus - not the tinned stuff!
Australia has one of the most diverse food selections of all countries. We have serious and strong influences from all parts of the world – old, new and otherwise. As a ‘western nation’ the greatest contribution to our culinary palette is the food of Europe, Northern Africa and the eastern Mediterranean. There is some input from Asia and a little bit from Southern and Central America. Indeed so many of our staple foods have a cultivated history going back two plus millennia. With such a wide range of inputs it is surprising that so few ‘non-western’ plants are in our culinary pantry.
Over the past few years I have written about so many edibles that have a long history of western cultivation. This month we have another in the popular green veggie; asparagus. This great tasting and healthy plant suffered a real attack in the sixties and seventies. We all remember that popular hors d’oeuvres – tinned asparagus wrapped in brown bread. Tasted great but was not really asparagus.
Asparagus is another of those common vegetables who’s history is lost in the annals of time. We haven’t the access to recipe or gardening books from pre-Christ times so we have to rely on paintings, engravings and drawings from the time. There are some Egyptian artworks that show Asparagus and are dated at 3000 years BC. This indicates that the plant has been cultivated for over 5000 years with an assumption that they were used for its culinary and medicinal properties.
The plant first entered the literary world in Greek writings during the first and second centuries AD. They referred to it as a useful vegetable with medicinal benefits. The Babylonians, Persians and Romans all wrote about the taste, medicinal and other properties of this simple vegetable. Even the ancient Chinese knew of the It came in and out of fashion
There are a multitude of species and the two main ones are Asparagus acutifolius and Asparagus officinalis. The first is considered the wild form and has quite thin stems and the latter is the cultivated form and there are over 100 cultivars. It is grown over the world and has been popular since the middle ages. The plant quickly became popular at most levels of society and by the early 19th century it was grown and used in all of Western Europe from Greece to Holland.
For some reason the Germans started canning and preserving asparagus during the mid 1800s. It was considered a delicacy and tinned asparagus soon became popular. Here in Australia we all remember the trendy finger food – tinned asparagus wrapped in brown bread (no crusts) held together with a toothpick. It was a yummy snack but had very little relationship to the healthy, tasty vegetable that is back in fashion.
It seems that there are just so many really healthy foods and asparagus is another one. A serve of Asparagus has 100% of daily needs of Vitamin K and 66% of Folate. This alone makes it a must eat but it also has 10 – 20% of the daily needs of a range of other vitamins and minerals including vitamins A, B 1,2 and 3, C, D & E. More importantly it is one of the highest sources of the water soluble dietary fibre, inulin. This fibre is a complex carbohydrate that assists in the development of key biotics in the lower gut.
As if an easy to grow vegetable that tastes nice, is quick to cook, is high in key vitamins, has high levels of good fibre isn’t enough, asparagus is also high in the antiaging polyphenols. These have given rise to the no-age plant as a common name. They are more of those trendy little anti oxidants and are basically just good things to have in our food. What all the nutritionist, and marketing people are saying we should eat.
Asparagus plants are a long term investment. They won’t produce good edible spears until they 2 or 3 years old but will then keep on doing so for 20+ years. They can be grown by seed, from pots (usually from seed) or from crowns divided from plants 3+ years old. They have male and female plants and for once it is the male we want.
The will grow in most parts of Australia and it is the spring shoots that are the best. They like a rich organic soil with good drainage and plenty of moisture. Harvest when the shoots are about 15 to 20 cm high and before they start to branch. The ideal size is about 1 to 1.2 cm thick. If they are consistently thinner than this then the plant needs another year and a good feed in the following autumn. Remove any dead branches during early winter taking care not to damage the crown. Remove any berries as they form as these will ripen, drop and germinate and may clog up the beds or become an weed problem.
They are long lived plants and once established need no special treatment. When I was tree grafting in Washington we would harvest fresh asparagus from under the trees every day for dinner. Two simple recipes are:
Toss in olive oil and chill and grill on a hot BBQ. Slightly blackened is best.
Chop in to 2-3cm lengths, toss with basil crushed garlic and quartered cherry tomatoes then put it all (with decent splash of olive oil) in a wok and cook for about 3 minutes (until tomatoes start to collapse) then serve.
tters, that works well on almost every site.