Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Ingredient of the Week

Asparagus (Asparagus Officinalis)

When is it in season?  Look for asparagus as early as this week, however, asparagus is readily harvested during the month of May according to the State of New Jersey Department of Agriculture Jersey Fresh: http://www.state.nj.us/jerseyfresh/searches/availability.htm.

Is it locally grown?  Yes!  New Jersey ranks 4th in U.S. production, so you can definitely buy your asparagus from a local farmer.  California, Michigan, and Washington come in as the top three states that grow asparagus.

How is it grown?  It is grown in 8" of sandy soil about 18" apart by a diligent farmer who keeps ensures a weed free environment.  Asparagus comes in green, white, and purple spears.  White is really green asparagus that is continuously covered with soil to block the sun while the stems grow.  Purple is native to Europe, is tender, and has 20% more sugar than green asparagus.  Asparagus takes three seasons to fully establish its root system.  Spears are cut after the third year, however, asparagus reaches its prime in six to eight years.  Asparagus is also labor intensive to harvest as it is cut by hand, which lends its high cost. 

Tips:  Look for firm spears with closed tips that are large in diameter.  Wider stems provide a more tender and crisp bite.  Asparagus is delicious when it is freshly picked and may be eaten raw.  Why wait?  If you prefer to cook your stems then remember to not step away from the kitchen as steaming or sauteing only takes 5 minutes. Wait for the stems to turn a vibrant green then remove from the heat.  Blanch in cold water if you are not eating the asparagus right away. The goal is to avoid turning it into a limp mucky-green vegetable by overcooking.

Bit O' History:  P. Garnham (2012) notes that asparagus is native to Europe and Asia and has been grown since 4,000 B.C.  Asparagus is part of the lily family and is akin to leeks and onions.  The Greeks purported it to be a cure for various ailments, while the Romans claimed asparagus was an aphrodisiac.

Fun Facts:  Rutgers University produces the varieties: "Jersey Knight," "Jersey Giant," and "Jersey Supreme."

Asparagus is high in vitamins A, B6, C, and thiamine.  It is also high in fiber and acts as a diuretic.

What's that smell?  Eating asparagus affects the odor of urine due to violatile sulphurs created in digestion.  Genetics lead to a proportion of people who produce a "skunky" odor and a proportion of people who can smell it.  While research varies over the chemical culprits, but the bottom line comes down to sulphur compounds.  McDonald (2011) notes in his research that White (1975) identified S-methyl thioesters, and Allison and McWhirter (1956) claimed methanethiol was the cause, whereas, Waring et.al (1987) noted that methanethiol, dimethyl sulphide, dimethyl disulphide, dimethyl sulphoxide, and dimethyl sulphone were the causes. 

Garnham, P. (2012, July/August).  Asparagus.  Horticulture, Vol. 109 (4), 14-19. 
McDonald, J.H. (2011).  Asparagus Urine Smell: The Myth Myths of Human Genetics.  
     Baltimore, Maryland:  Sparky House Publishing, 8-13.  Retrieved from
Michigan Asparagus Advisory Board. (2000).  Questions about Asparagus.  Retrieved 
     April 20, 2013 from http://www.asparagus.org/maab/faq.html.
Toussaint-Samat, M. (2009).  A History of Food (2nd ed.).  West Sussex, United
     Kingdom: John Wiley & Sons.
United States Department of Agriculture Economics, Statistics, and Market Information:  
     U.S.  Asparagus Statistics. (2008).  Table01.xls: Census number of farms with asparagus,
     area harvested, 1974-2007.  Retrieved from 

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