Latin name: Asparagus officinalis
One of spring’s most celebrated culinary symbols, asparagus is the young shoot of a perennial plant related to alliums (onions and lilies). Once the shoots get too tall—about a foot or so —they sprout feathery branches and leaves and the stalks become too tough to eat. White asparagus is not a different species; it’s created by covering new growth with earth or mulch, thereby blanching the shoots by depriving them of sunlight. The flavor is milder, sweeter, and less green.
Why are asparagus healthy?
Asparagus has been used as a medicinal vegetable for over 2500 years. It is packed with anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties — including “the master antioxidant” glutathione — that can slow aging, benefit the skin, and help reduce risk of chronic diseases such as hypertension, type 2 diabetes, and certain types of cancer. Asparagus’s strong diuretic properties can help relieve bloat and edema, and even help prevent kidney stones, and its high levels of fiber and prebiotics like inulin make it a great aid to digestion and gut health.
What do asparagus taste like?
Slightly bitter and vegetal, with a distinct flavor to match its slightly alien appearance, asparagus is famous for clashing with many wines. (Try a simple, zippy white.)
Where do asparagus grow?
Native to Europe and Western Asia, asparagus has been popular since ancient times, appearing in an Egyptian carving from 5,000 years ago. It’s now widely cultivated all over the world, and much of its pointed association with spring’s arrival has been blunted by global shipping, making it available all year round.
How do I prepare asparagus and what do I pair them with?
Asparagus is commonly boiled or steamed, but it takes beautifully to a quick broiling or grilling. Don’t overcook it, or it will get dull and mushy. You can also stir-fry it, pickle it, blend it into a creamy soup, or eat it raw (thinly shaved and dressed is best). It likes a little acid, fat, and umami, so pick your combination of condiments and get to it: a vinaigrette, or hollandaise, or maybe a ginger-scallion sauce. Asparagus stands tallest with its equally elegant vernal peers like morels and wild garlic. Other classic pairings include eggs, cheese, and spring herbs.
Asparagus contains asparagusic acid, which converts into sulfur compounds when digested, causing most people’s urine to smell peculiar for a few hours after eating it. If that sounds off-putting, let Marcel Proust reassure you. He wrote that asparagus "...transforms my chamber-pot into a flask of perfume."