Types of Asparagus

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Straight from the Forq Kitchen!
by Jayne Pearce


Types of Asparagus

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Roots and Crowns

To really understand the journey asparagus has been through on its way to your dinner plate, we need to step back in time. 2500 years ago, the Egyptians were the first that we know of to represent asparagus in the frieze (the decoration, like the border) of many wall paintings. The Greeks later coined the name ‘aspharagos’ meaning ‘long as one’s throat’ — though it could easily take its name just as much from the Persian ‘asparag’, meaning ‘sprout.’ ’ It was the Romans who kicked off our love affair with cooking and eating asparagus. Between the Egyptians, the Greeks and the Romans, asparagus became a major part of the North African and European diet by the 1600s (??). It’s not surprising really as it is in these areas and parts of Western Europe the flowering perennial is native. Europeans cultivated the edible asparagus officinalis vegetable and either ate it fresh; frozen or dried. Roman Emperor Augustus even named one of his fleets “Asparagus.” It seems he hoped his troops would follow the vegetables’ fast food example and be quickly ready for action. After a lull during the Medieval period, asparagus was wheeled into European and Chinese kitchens during the sixteenth century. It has been promoting its pert stature and an appetite for healthy, fast food ever since. Asparagus arrived in the United States in the 1850s with European immigrants and settled its roots in California, Michigan and Washington, ready to feed a growing demand for a versatile vegetable packed with nutritional goodness.

Asparagus arrived in the United States in the 1850s with European immigrants and settled its roots in California, Michigan and Washington, ready to feed a growing demand for a versatile vegetable packed with nutritional goodness

- Salmon Lover

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Asparagus – green is good

China is, by far, the largest producer of green asparagus followed by Peru and Mexico. Much of the asparagus you see in US supermarkets typically comes in airplane loads from Peru where farmers only started growing the crop in the last twenty years. This now convenient and ubiquitous year-round supply has brought down the cost of asparagus from ‘very expensive’ to just ‘expensive.’ Thanks to imports, what was once considered a delicacy is fast becoming an every-day commodity. This is all a bit of a shame as local producers in Britain and California’s Central Valley struggle to compete with these cheaper, imported competitors. There is nothing better in the foodie calendar than supporting your local, seasonal suppliers. Many farming communities even go as far as dressing up in bright green asparagus-shaped costumes at their annual asparagus festivals to highlight their harvest and their preciously short growing season. The next time you’re driving and see a tall, skinny-looking green human in latex waving a banner saying “Asparagus for sale” beside the road, I ask you to pull over, open your wallet, support your local farmer, and enjoy slow food that is in the region and season it was meant for.

Asparagus’ vibrant green color, and to a lesser extent the white and purple varietals, means the vegetable is packed full of a long list of healthy vitamin Bs with lots of ‘anti-oxidant this’ and ‘anti-inflammatory that’. The health benefits of asparagus are so extensive they require an article all of their own. I feel healthier just listing them!!

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UV-denied white asparagus

Around the world, cooks and chefs go crazy for this queer-colored vegetable. It’s all about the taste and, I suspect, the novelty of decorating a colorless vegetable. White asparagus delivers a slightly milder taste which is less bitter than its green equivalent. This colorless vegetable derives its white profile by having been denied sunlight, along with having soil shoveled around it as it grows. The typical green coloring of ‘regular asparagus’ comes from chlorophyll produced from the process of photosynthesis which I’m sure we all remember from high school science. And so, asparagus that is buried is denied the chance to see the light of day, with not even a single sneaky peek at the sunlight. It feels a little weird, almost like the plant is being mistreated, and yet miraculously, a healthy and vibrant plant emerges from this process; it is just a plant that lacks color. And, rather marvelously, what white asparagus lacks in color it makes up for with its subtly prized mild flavor.

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Germany is a big producer of white asparagus, or ‘spargel’ as it is known locally. White asparagus roots enjoy the German sandy soils where they are grown extensively. It is also popular throughout Europe apart from the UK where green is the clear favorite of the public. Depending on the variety of white asparagus, the thicker the stem, the higher the price. The opposite is true of its worldwide verdant equivalent where the thinner, leaner and greener asparagus stems command a heftier price than their chunkier siblings. During spargel season, it is possible to buy white asparagus fresh from farmers markets but most of it seems to get canned and sold throughout Europe and the US. It is hard to find fresh, white asparagus in the US, but, like any delicacy, once it catches the interest of chefs and home cooks it won’t be long before it is sitting proudly on the produce aisle and featured on local menus.

Purple asparagus

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention asparagus’ purple cousin, which I am delighted to find sometimes gets a bit of shelf space here in my California supermarket. Purple asparagus has a higher sugar content, is still relatively low in calories (how about that?!) and is (quote very clever nutritionist) a “potent antioxidant,” which sounds like an excellent alternative to yoga and a cup of green tea. Purple asparagus is also generally less fibrous and more tender than its green and white asparagus cousins. With a higher sugar content and easier digestion, this makes it an attractive healthy food option. I wouldn’t be surprised if we also see more of the purple asparagus in the coming years.

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Because Forq is a community of enthusiastic foodies, I charge you with sharing your thoughts, ideas and recipes for white and purple asparagus varietals here and in the app. How do you bring white asparagus to your dinner table? What have you done with purple asparagus that might surprise and delight forq foodies everywhere? What do you do with green asparagus to keep it interesting? Show us your colors — and better yet, share your pictures! Food is only as interesting as any community makes it.

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Who’s Cooking Today

Jayne Pearce

I’ve sampled exotic and unusual foods on my travels, but nothing beats coming home and sharing my experiences in the kitchen and in my writing. I love the sticky leftover goo of barbecued pork ribs that my kids can’t quite polish off on their own; I yearn for the safe and homely aroma of roast chicken as I pull it from the oven; I adore the sizzle and smell of broiled bacon on a wet Sunday morning. Food will always be my friend as it is meant for sharing. You can enjoy my written and visual translation of taste at jambip.com or via the various social media channels.

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