Eat some asparagus and feel like a fancy-pants

Asparagus: the vegetable of choice for lusty aristocrats.
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The arrival of asparagus in early spring is cause for celebration. It is harvested by cutting the spears as they emerge from the ground, before they have a chance to open into airy, billowing ferns. Asparagus is in season for just a month or so before being left to grow for the rest of the year so that it will produce again next spring. It's most delicious if you can find it fresh, right here in New Hampshire: a special spring treat.

Most of the asparagus we see in the grocery store, if not all, comes from far away places like California, Washington, Michigan, Mexico and, increasingly, Peru. In fact, according to Food & Water Watch, a nonprofit advocacy organization, three out of every five pounds of asparagus eaten in the United States comes to us from Peru. Peru is now a year-round producer of the succulent green spears and is slowly taking over asparagus production. United States production declines every year.

A quick call-around to Concord grocery stores tells the story. Right now, Shaw's asparagus comes to us from Mexico and costs $2.99 per pound. Market Basket sells asparagus from California at $2.99 per pound. If you prefer organic, you'll find it at the Co-op for $4.19 per pound, and it's from California also. Hannaford is offering asparagus from Peru at $1.99 per pound.

If you have a relationship with a local farm, find out if it grows asparagus. You might get lucky. As with most every vegetable, asparagus tastes best when it's grown close by and eaten fresh. If all else fails, befriend a gardener (quickly) and offer to help in the garden while you're at it.

Look for asparagus spears that are bright, dark green, very firm to the touch, with not too much white on the ends. Tips should be tight, pointed and compact. When you get it home, trim a quarter inch off ends (to help it absorb water) and store it in the fridge standing vertically in a container of water or with the cut ends wrapped in a damp paper towel. Chances are, your asparagus has already traveled for a few days, so try to use it up quickly.

Asparagus has long been prized as both food and medicine. It's been used as a diuretic to relieve kidney ailments and toothaches, to support cardiac health and even to prevent bee stings. Early Egyptians loved and respected wild asparagus enough to offer it to the gods, placing bundles of it in the tombs of the wealthy and powerful.

The Romans cultivated asparagus as early as 200 B.C. It gained its reputation as a vegetable of the aristocracy over the centuries, when it graced the dining tables of princes, kings and queens. In the 17th century, France's King Louis XIV demanded that it be grown for him in the month of December, long before spring's arrival. Greenhouses were built to better control growing conditions, thus granting his royal wish.

Asparagus has long been rumored to be an aphrodisiac. Whether or not that's true, it has another quality that could hamper the progress of any clandestine romance. As the 19th century food writer Stanislas Martin said, "asparagus has the drawback of giving the urine an unpleasant odour, which has more than once betrayed an illicit dinner." Not everyone's urine exposes their dinner choices, and some people can't detect the odor. Let the love-crazed diner beware!

Though asparagus has this colorful past, your less complicated concerns may rest more in the homely realm of your kitchen.

When you're ready to cook dinner, just snap off the butt ends; they'll snap at just the right place, removing the tough, fibrous portion and leaving the more tender stem. You may want to peel the bottom ends of thicker spears.

Asparagus is at its best when it's lightly cooked and lends itself well to steaming, stir-frying or roasting. It takes to sauces beautifully, so challenge your culinary skills with that finishing touch and let the actual cooking be quick and simple. Once cooked, asparagus is delicious eaten hot or chilled. (next page »)

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