April is for Asparagus

One of the very first spring messengers of the garden is the perennial asparagus spear, with its nose poking through the most soil. Asparagus stands alone in its unique and simple gourmet qualities. Interestingly asparagus is related to onions, garlic, and other members of the lily family.

Asparagus has been used since ancient times in many parts of the world. Its name is most likely derived from the Persian word asparag meaning "sprout." However, the greek word aspharagos means "long as one's throat," and in England during the 18th century this vegetable was known as "sparrow grass." Regardless, its popularity lives on.

Asparagus season is short, adding to its specialness. Enjoy it thoroughly while it's here!

Not only is asparagus a culinary delight, it is also a nutritional winner. Generally, raw asparagus ranks high in vitamins A, B-complex, and C, and is also rich in minerals from the soil, particularly zinc and potassium. Nibble on some tender asparagus raw for its full flavor and nutritional value. Like other vegetables, it will lose some, though not all, of its B-complex and vitamin C during the cooking process. Popular also with those who are counting calories, asparagus contains no fat and only 35 calories per one-cup serving.

Cooking Tips

  • Snap off or remove with a knife the bottommost woody part of the spear.

  • Try tender asparagus spears raw, chop into a salad, or enjoy with a dip.

  • Asparagus is best cook simply. Here are two suggestions:

  • Arrange spears loosely in a skillet with an inch of lightly salted boiling water. Simmer for 3-5 minutes or until bright green and tender, but not mushy. Remove from heat and run under cold water to stop the cooking process (otherwise you will end up with overcooked asparagus).

  • Crank your oven up to 450 and toss asparagus onto a baking pan with a Tablespoon of olive oil, salt and pepper. Cook for 10 minutes or until the outside edges caramelize.

  • Try serving asparagus warm topped with butter, lemon, and a sprinkle of Parmesan cheese.

  • Try serving cold with a simple vinaigrette, or try olive oil with fresh squeezed lemon and a sprinkle of salt.

  • Try it on your kids! It's mild in flavor and fun to chomp down, raw or cooked.

Storage Tips

  • Wrap asparagus in a damp cloth and store in the hydrator drawer of the refrigerator. An alternate storage technique to retain vitality is to bundle spears with a rubber band and place upright in a container with an inch of cold water.

  • Refrigerate immediately and use as soon as possible. Asparagus' sugar will turn rapidly to starches, reducing flavor.

All of the above contents were taken from the Asparagus to Zucchini cookbook, published by the Fairshare CSA Coalition. Want to find more farm-fresh recipes and information, purchase the cookbook online. Or find it for sale by Illinois Stewardship Alliance at the Old Capitol Farmers Market in Springfield.

Quick Asparagus Grilled Cheese

The beauty of asparagus is that they are simple and quick, yet hearty enough to make up a meal almost entirely on their own. This recipe can be whipped up in under 20 minutes and makes a perfect weeknight dinner that will satisfy little eaters and hungry adults both.

Ingredients:

Asparagus (about 5-7 spears per sandwich, depending on the size)

1/2 Tbsp olive oil

2 slices of bread

Gruyere cheese

Honey dijon mustard (or alternatively, your favorite mustard mixed with a smidge of honey)

Instructions

1. Preheat your oven to 450 degrees

2. Trim the ends of your asparagus...but don't toss them! You can boil these with a little bit of chicken stock, add in a splash of cream, salt, and pepper, and throw it all in the blender for a creamy asparagus soup. How awesome would asparagus grilled cheese and asparagus soup be together?! But if you don't have time for that (I didn't)...toss them in a ziplock bag in the freezer and pop them out whenever you do have time.

3. Toss asparagus spears, oil, salt, and pepper all together and pop into the oven for 10 minutes.

4. While asparagus is cooking, butter (or olive oil spray) your bread, slice your cheese, spread on your honey dijon mustard, and preheat your pan to a medium-low setting on the stove.

5. Remove asparagus from the oven, cut in half, and arrange on your sandwich.

6. Place the sandwich on the pan, making sure that the buttered ends face outwards. Grill on low heat for about 5 minutes on each side, checking occasionally to make sure you don't burn the bread (patience is key for a truly melty sandwich). For a panini-like effect, place a pot full of water on top of the sandwich in order to flatten it. Cut and enjoy!

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