Asparagus

Asparagus is easy to select and prepare, and comes in a variety of vibrant colors, including green, violet, purple and white.

The beautiful bunches of asparagus now appearing at grocery stores and farmer's markets is like a personal invitation to deliciously celebrate spring. Asparagus is easy to select and prepare, and comes in a variety of vibrant colors, including green, violet, purple and white.

My introduction to white asparagus came during a trip to Germany to visit Department of Defense schools on military bases. Before I became a chef and cookbook author, I was a children's author with more than 100 books in seven languages. I visited schools and did storytelling presentations and book signings for elementary, junior high and high school students, their parents and educators all over the U.S. and Europe.

It took almost a month to complete the book tour in Germany, so my husband and I had plenty of time to take in the local culture and sample traditional German dishes. Our hosts were particularly eager to take us on a drive through the German countryside to show us the fields of white asparagus.

Some people call white asparagus "the vampire of the vegetable world" because it's grown under a thick blanket of mulch and black plastic that shields it from the sun.

White asparagus never turns green because no photosynthesis takes place. The lack of sunlight not only changes the color, but the flavor. White asparagus spears are much more delicate than green asparagus.

The complex process of producing white asparagus, the short growing season and transportation costs from South America and Europe are the reasons why white asparagus is a little pricey.

While asparagus is available year-round, it's much better when grown and purchased locally. Asparagus also grows wild and is commercially available fresh, frozen and canned. The stalks range in size from colossal to small. Various types and colors of asparagus can be used without any noticeable difference in taste, so mix and match colors and sizes for visual interest.

Asparagus should be crisp and firm, not limp or wrinkled, with tightly closed tips. Dull colors and ridges in the stems are an indication of a lack of freshness. The stalks should not be limp or dry at the cut, and of uniform thickness.

Fresh asparagus should never be washed or soaked before storing. If the asparagus is bound with a rubber band, remove it as it will pinch and bruise the stalks. If you're planning to use the asparagus on the same day, rinse it under cool water, pat the stalks dry with a paper towel and prep the stems.

Peeling the end of thicker stalks with a paring knife or a vegetable peeler removes any woody stems and can be done up to two hours before cooking. If preparing white asparagus, make sure to peel the bottom two-thirds of each spear because it tends to have a thick and bitter skin. Smaller stalks can be broken or cut at the point where the stem naturally snaps.

Asparagus can be stored for up to two days if the stalks are trimmed and placed upright in a jar with about an inch of water in the bottom. Cover the asparagus with a plastic bag and store the spears in the refrigerator.

Asparagus cooks in minutes and can be prepared in the oven or microwave, steamed or boiled. Boiling in salted water is the best technique for cooking white asparagus. But like its more colorful cousins, it's also good roasted or grilled. Asparagus tastes delicious hot or cold and also freezes well if blanched first in hot water.

Asparagus is a nutritional powerhouse. A half cup of cooked asparagus contains significant amounts of folic acid, vitamin C, potassium and beta-carotene. It's also a heart-healthy food, and a natural diuretic.

This versatile vegetable works well as a room temperature appetizer, the main ingredient as part of a main course, blended into a soup, or as a flavorful side dish or in a colorful salad.

A quick and easy way to prepare asparagus is this Roasted Asparagus with Lemon and Parmesan. It's a simple and delicious way to celebrate spring!

ROASTED ASPARAGUS WITH LEMON AND PARMESAN

2 pounds fresh asparagus, tough ends trimmed off

1/4 cup olive oil

4 teaspoons grated lemon zest

2 garlic cloves, minced

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon ground black pepper

1/4 cup Parmesan cheese

1. Heat oven to 425 F. Place asparagus in a greased 15 by 10 by 1 inch baking pan.

2. In a small bowl, mix the olive oil, 3 teaspoons of the lemon zest, garlic, salt, pepper and half of the cheese together, and drizzle it over the asparagus. Toss to coat. Roast until crisp-tender, 8-12 minutes.

3. Sprinkle with the remaining Parmesan cheese and lemon zest. Serves 4 to 6.

Angela Shelf Medearis is an award-winning children's author, culinary historian and the author of seven cookbooks. Her new cookbook is "The Kitchen Diva's Diabetic Cookbook." Her website is www.divapro.com. To see how-to videos, recipes and much, much more, Like Angela Shelf Medearis, The Kitchen Diva! on Facebook. Recipes may not be reprinted without permission from Angela Shelf Medearis.

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