My husband and I visited Vienna, Austria a few years ago during the “Spargel Festival.” Spargel is the German word for asparagus. Spargelfests, celebrated from mid-April to mid-June, include peeling contests and even the crowning of an asparagus queen! We stayed at the Hotel im Palais Schwarzenburg surrounded by spectacular flower gardens in the center of Vienna. It is a real palace, a part of which was converted to a five-star hotel to help support its maintenance costs. One afternoon we rented bicycles for a ride along the Danube. Every restaurant in Vienna was offering menu items using tender stalks of white asparagus and we stopped at a riverside cafe for lunch. I enjoyed a creamy asparagus soup while my husband opted for a plate of steamed asparagus. It was delicious!
We normally associate asparagus with spring as it is one of the earliest vegetable to emerge from the soil. But it is now available in markets year round and makes hearty soups, risottos and strudels to warm chilly winter nights.
Asparagus has been used both as a vegetable and medicine since ancient times. A recipe for cooking asparagus was found in one of the oldest surviving cookbooks, Apicius’s third-century AD De re Coquinaria, Book III. It was also depicted as an offering in a 3000 AD Egyptian frieze. Although asparagus was cultivated in France during the 16th century, it didn’t reach the United States until 1850.
Cultivation and Purchase
Asparagus is a perennial garden plant and member of the lily family. Its spears from a crown that is planted about a foot deep in sandy soil, although it is usually not harvested until three years after planting. A well cared for asparagus plant can live for 15 years, producing spears for about 6-7 weeks during the spring and summer. Asparagus spears can grow up to 10 inches in a 24-hour period and must be picked often.
There are three varieties of asparagus: the green asparagus we see most often in the supermarket, white asparagus (soil is heaped on the spears as they emerge which inhibits the development of chlorophyll content, therefore creating its distinctive white coloring), and purple asparagus (only 2-3 inches tall and fruitier in flavor).
When purchasing asparagus, look for straight spears that are not wrinkled or dried out. Although some people think the thinner stalks are more tender, that is not always true. White asparagus is very tender, although it must be peeled with a vegetable peeler, as the outside is fibrous and even woody at times. Wrap asparagus spears in a damp paper towel or cloth and refrigerate until ready to cook. Do not keep asparagus for more than a day or two after purchase as it will dry out and become tough.
Asparagus is a nutrient-dense food which in high in Folic Acid and is a good source of potassium, fiber, vitamin B6, vitamins A and C, and thiamin. Asparagus has no fat, contains no cholesterol and is low in sodium. It also contains saponins which are known to have anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer properties.
World’s Healthiest Foods (www.whfoods.com)