There was a time when vegetables were available during specific seasons. Now with modern agriculture and transportation technologies this is becoming less true. It seems everything is "in season" all of the time if you are willing to pay the price and sacrifice quality. It is difficult not to succumb to the mountains of tomatoes and asparagus being displayed so temptingly at local grocers twelve months a year. But even if they are of reasonable quality in the dead of winter, there is nothing that can match the excitement and satisfaction of cooking and eating vegetables which are in peak season and were grown regionally. Presently, asparagus is at its peak; the season for harvesting asparagus runs from early March through mid June.
Asparagus is a member of the lily family, which also includes onions, leeks and garlic -- all of which are in season. Plants in the lily family are also related to various grasses. In fact, asparagus is referred to in the dialects of 18th and 19th century cookbooks as sparagrass or sparrowgrass. The name, asparagus, actually originates from ancient Greek meaning "to sprout" or "shoot up". It was initially cultivated in the Eastern Mediterranean more than 2000 years ago, and the ancient Greeks and Romans considered it a delicacy. California asparagus was first planted in the mid-1860's and has thrived ever since.
Not surprisingly, as with most green vegetables, asparagus not only tastes good but also is extremely good for you. Asparagus is at the top of the list of vegetables that supply folic acid. A member of the vitamin B complex, folic acid is necessary for blood cell formation and growth, and also aids in the prevention of liver disease. According to the National Cancer Institute, asparagus also contains a high level of glutathione, which is one of the body's most potent cancer fighters. And besides being a good source of potassium, having a very low sodium content and virtually no cholesterol, asparagus is also extremely low in calories-on average there are only about4 calories in a single spear.
Much of Europe prefers the delicate white asparagus though it is relatively unknown in North America. White asparagus is obtained by covering the stalks with soil as they grow; this deters the development of chlorophyll, which keeps the stalks white.
To prepare asparagus for cooking, gently bend the stalk until it snaps. It should break just above the point were the white end gives way to pale green; discard the fibrous end. For thick stalks with tough skin, simply peel off the outer layer with an ordinary vegetable peeler. Asparagus lends itself well to almost any cooking technique; it may be steamed, poached, sautéed, fried, or even grilled. The simplest way to cook asparagus is to steam or poach it for its natural flavor to pervade. It may then be served hot, cold, or at room temperature and simply drizzled with melted butter, fresh squeezed lemon juice or light vinaigrette.