The tender delicate shoots of asparagus start appearing at the beginning of spring. It is one of the earliest of spring vegetables that show up on store shelves.
Only the fresh shoots of the asparagus plant are eaten by humans. In fact, the small red fruits of the plant are toxic to humans and pet animals.
The asparagus plant is very pretty with feathery leaves (which are actually not leaves but tiny stems) and small off-white flowers. They are sometimes grown as garden plants and used in flower bouquets for their looks. The root of certain species of asparagus (shatavari) is used as medicine.
Asparagus has completely separate male and female plants (being dioecious) and male plants are considered better for cultivation as they produce bigger shoots and more of them.
Asparagus has been cultivated since Roman times and was included in spring festivals as a symbol of fertility. Native to Eurasia, today they are cultivated all over the world.
Being a perennial plant, the same plant will produce shoots for many many years. Usually shoots are harvested starting in the third year of the plant’s life as it needs time to establish a spread-out root system from which the shoots are pushed up. During fall season, the plant starts to wilt and die and roots go into dormant stage for the winter. Come spring, the cycle starts again with the new shoots.
The older well established plants produce fatter shoots which are tastier and better for cooking.
Asparagus shoots come in green, purple and white colors. While the purple variety is a species different from the green, white asparagus is the same plant as the green. The shoots are entirely protected from the sun and grow underground in sandy soil till they are ready to be harvested. If allowed come up above ground, they will turn green as a result of photosynthesis.
Asparagus, especially the white variety, is so popular in Germany that many small villages in the Bavarian region of Germany hold ‘Spargelfests’ (Spargel = asparagus in German) where guests enjoy various asparagus dishes, lots of beer and a big formal evening dance to crown the ‘Spargel Königin’, the Queen of Asparagus for the village. Asparagus from Schrobenhausen in Bavaria is officially recognized by the EU as a protected designation of geographical origin.
Statistically, only half of the world’s asparagus production is used as food. A research team from Munich University of Applied Sciences was able to extract fiber material from the asparagus and make rough paper that can be used for fruit boxes or egg cartons.
It is a scientific fact that some sulfurous compounds in asparagus lends a peculiar odor to the pee, commonly known as asparagus pee. Though everyone produces asparagus pee after eating asparagus, not everyone can smell it.
Pan-Roasted Asparagus Soup
- 1½ pounds asparagus
- 1 large leak
- 1 medium yellow potato
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 10 fresh tarragon leaves
- 4 cups chicken or vegetable stock
- 1/2 cup sour cream
- Pinch of cumin seeds
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Break off the top 1 inch of the asparagus stalks and set aside. Break off the woody bottom part of the asparagus and discard. Chop the remaining middle part of the asparagus into 1/2 inch pieces.
- Peel and cut the potato into small pieces.
- Thinly slice the white part of the leek crosswise.
- Heat the oil in a deep skillet and add the sliced leeks. Cook them , stirring occasionally, till they are soft and starts to brown along the edges.
- Add the chopped asparagus and tarragon. (If you do not have fresh tarragon, you can use 1/2 a teaspoon of dried.) Raise the heat to high, and cook till the asparagus gets partially browned.
- Add the broth and potato pieces. Bring to a boil.
- Season with salt and pepper, reduce heat and cook on simmer till the asparagus and potato pieces are very soft, about 20 minutes.
- When done, take the pot off the heat and using an immersion blender, blend thoroughly.
- Return the pot to the stove. Add the reserved asparagus tips and cook over medium low heat for 10 more minutes. Adjust seasoning.
- Meanwhile crush the pinch of cumin and mix with the sour cream.
- When ready, pour the soup into serving bowls and garnish with a dollop of cumin sour cream. Serve right away.