By Sam Rogers, Gjelina Group's farm liaison
Though you might associate asparagus with stinky pee, this green shoot is an insanely delicious vegetable with a long history and a fascinating life cycle. And I’ll tell you about the scented pee too.
Its flavor is the perfect epitome of spring, with notes of snap peas, broccoli and artichoke all rolled into one. Asparagus should be firm and crunchy, and the heads at the top should look tight and smooth. It is always most tender and sweet at the moment of harvest, then will begin to lose its flavor shortly after.This why it's always better to get it from the farmers market, where it's usually been harvested the day before. Our littlespring buddy can be eaten raw, steamed, grilled, shaved, etc. but remember that when it comes to asparagus, less is bes’! Or least is most….. As soon as it’s overcooked and loses structure, these proud, erect shoots go flaccid. Yeah, I made that joke.
From seed, the asparagus plant takes 5 years to produce a shoot! This is a huge commitment for any farmer or gardener, even for most who opt to buy 2-3 year old “crowns” to shorten this time commitment. It ties up the land in the meantime, requiring food and water, and only produces during one season. That helps explain why asparagus costs more per bunch than most other vegetables. Growing underground, the crown is the actual plant. It looks like a matted bundle of roots that slightly resembles a saffron bulb. The crown grows horizontally as opposed to vertically, meaning that each crown has to be strategically planted with enough distance to allow for this grow over the years.
Once the crown matures, it will start sending up “shoots” at the first sign of spring. These shoots are what we eat - asparagus. Thickness and thinness are not correlated to tenderness. Thicker asparagus shoots are just an indication of an older crown. This perennial (meaning that it comes back every year without having to be replanted) will produce about 20 pounds of asparagus per plant per year, and a healthy crown can continue sending up shoots for over 20 years!
Asparagus plants are dioecious (either entirely male or female biologically). Female plants produce more shoots that are thinner in diameter. After their first year the female plants will produce seeds that look like little red berries. These seeds form on the female plants in late summer and are poisonous to humans. The harvest season is only about 8 weeks long for each plant. Be careful, only the young asparagus shoots should be eaten, once the buds (the tip-shaped, pointy part) begins to “fern out” the plant will begin to get really woody and stringy.
For those who are curious, white asparagus, also called "white gold" asparagus [a favorite of Chef Ludo Lefebvre] is the result of a technique called “blanching”. The shoots are meticulously covered with soil as they grow, which takes away any sun exposure, meaning that the process of photosynthesis never begins, so the cells never produce any green chlorophyl. They are then “earthed up” when they hit the desired height. The blanching process can also be accomplished by growing the plants indoors. The white asparagus are said to be more tender and less bitter.
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Asparagus is native to the Mediterranean and was eaten by the ancient Greeks. The Greeks and Romans ate it fresh when in season and then dried the vegetable in the winter. Asparagus recipes are found in the oldest surviving cookbook, Apicius’s third-century treatise, “On the Subject of Cooking.” The shoots are depicted in a 5,000 year old Egyptian frieze.
You’ve heard all the other details, so then what’s with the stinky pee? Asparagus has a unique compound that, when metabolized, gives off a distinctive smell in the urine. It happens to everyone, just not all people can smell it. The inability to smell a particular smell is called anosmia. Don't worry though, there are no harmful effects from eating this delicious vegetable, and there’s nothing wrong with you if you can’t smell the funky pee — in fact, you’re one of the lucky few. I’ll let Proust have the last word on that (since how could I follow him?) as he said asparagus “transforms my chamber-pot into a flask of perfume."