Seasonal Eats: Fare From the Ancients with Asparagus

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Fresh Asparagus at the Farmer's Market (Heather Parlato/LAist)

If you've been frequenting the Farmer's Markets around town, you've probably noticed asparagus popping up everywhere. It's high-asparagus season right now, which means it's not only available but abundant, with some sellers offering great deals on multiple bunches. Interestingly, references to asparagus are found in the oldest surviving cookbooks in history, and depicted in art as early as 3000 BC. Asparagus was popular in ancient cultures of the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans, which makes it a traditional favorite in all of western civilization. There are both green and white varieties of asparagus, with the green being higher in vitamin C. Asparagus is mildly anti-inflammatory with a glycemic load of 3.

Asparagus has been used medicinally through the ages, as a diuretic, and a laxative for its fiber content. The observation that it causes an odor in urine has hilariously historic documentation as well, with my favorite quote from Marcel Proust: "[Asparagus] transforms my chamber-pot into a flask of perfume." I always thought this was some kind of joke, but apparently there are several chemical compounds that cause it, and a few studies showing that only certain people can smell it, detailed on Wikipedia. In any case, Asparagus is also a good source of Pantothenic Acid, Calcium, Magnesium, Zinc and Selenium, and a very good source of Dietary Fiber, Protein, Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Vitamin E (Alpha Tocopherol), Vitamin K, Thiamin, Riboflavin, Niacin, Vitamin B6, Folate, Iron, Phosphorus, Potassium, Copper and Manganese.

While you can eat shaved asparagus raw, or throw it in a salad, most recipes start with either a steam or quick boiling preparation for a fresh dish. Asparagus tastes great with tangy and salty sauces or pairings. Try out asparagus with goat cheese and arugula sauce, or asparagus with lemon and butter. Some nice breakfasts include steak and eggs with asparagus or a salmon and asparagus frittata. If you're looking for some salads, these three sounded delicious: asparagus, green onion, cucumber & herb salad, green salad with orange, fennel & asparagus, or white bean and asparagus salad.

Another popular preparation is to grill asparagus, either loose on the grill or speared with a bamboo skewer. Start with simple grilled asparagus adding any variety of dressing you like, or go for the ham combo asparagus wrapped in prosciutto. If you're ready to take it a step further, grill first and then go on to make grilled asparagus soup!

Asparagus is a snappy addition to stir fry. Go hearty with sesame ginger beef and asparagus stir fry or go vegan / gluten-free with spicy tofu and asparagus stir fry Some others I liked included this Italian asparagus, peas & basil or asparagus and snake beans with chile jam and kaffir lime.

If you're looking to bake up something good, you can use many sauces and flavored oils as a liquid base for baking, as in asparagus with citrus and oregano. On the comfort food side of things, gratins are great friends to asparagus, as are cheesy tarts or tarts with mushrooms. Throw them in raw to roast with chicken cutlets as a side vegetable. Moving on to comfort foods of the Italian variety, considering asparagus' history, you can make pretty much anything with it. Lasagna? Yes! Risotto? Absolutely! Ravioli? Indeed! Pasta? How about pasta with asparagus, lemon & pine nuts or spaghetti with asparagus, shiitake mushrooms, lemon & chives!

I like the crunch of a stir fry, so I came up with a bright, flavorful stir fry with scallions, cashews & slivered almonds that can be enjoyed on its own, or over quinoa, rice or noodles.

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Asparagus Scallion Stir Fry (Heather Parlato/LAist)

Asparagus Scallion Stir Fry

1 bunch asparagus, preferably thin stalk, cut to 1" pieces

2 tb sesame oil

1 tb soy sauce

4 scallions, sliced thin

1" peeled ginger root, cut into matchsticks

1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes

2 cloves garlic, minced

1/4 cup toasted cashews

1/4 cup toasted slivered almonds

zest and juice of 1 lemon

salt & red pepper flakes to taste

Heat sesame oil in a frying pan over high heat, and add asparagus, scallions, ginger and red pepper flakes. Sauté over high heat for 1 minute, then add soy sauce, garlic, cashews and lemon juice and sauté 1 more minute. Salt to taste. Remove from heat, toss in the slivered almonds and serve garnished with lemon zest and red pepper flakes.