Nutrition: Asparagus is naturally lean and green. Five average stalks contain only 25 calories. This vegetable is high in vitamins C, K and folic acid. It's also an important source of potassium.
Asparagus can help keep you well, too. According to the National Cancer Institute, asparagus contains glutathione, one of the body's most potent cancer fighters. It's also high in rutin, which helps strengthen blood vessels.
Selection: Look for long, blemish-free, bright green spears with closed, compact tips; those are signs of freshness. Select bunches with spears of similar diameters; they'll cook at the same rate.
California's asparagus season runs March through June, peaking in late April and early May. One pound typically has 12 to 15 spears, depending on size.
Storage: Keep spears cool and moist, wrapped in plastic and refrigerated in the crisper drawer. If storing for more than two days, give the bunch a drink. Set the asparagus upright in a dish with 1 inch of water. (That method also may revive wilted asparagus.) Or wrap the cut ends in a damp paper towel before storing in a plastic bag.
Cooking: Fresh asparagus cooks quickly; the thinner the spear, the faster it cooks. Here are suggested cooking times from the California Asparagus Commission: Boil 2 to 5 minutes; steam 4 to 8 minutes; microwave 3 to 5 minutes on high; stir-fry 3 to 7 minutes; grill 8 to 10 minutes; or roast (375 degrees) 5 to 8 minutes.
Freezing: Parboil fresh spears 2 minutes, then quickly transfer to a large bowl of cold water with ice. Pat spears dry and arrange them on a cookie sheet in a single layer, not touching. Place cookie sheet in the freezer. Once the spears are frozen, transfer them to a freezer bag. They can be stored up to three months.
Asparagus come in four grades, based on diameter: Standard (pencil width, not less than 5/16th of an inch); large (over 7/16ths); extra large (over 5/8ths); and jumbo (over 13/16ths).
The jumbos are actually more tender than pencil size, said Jim Jerkovich, general manager of asparagus giant Victoria Island Farms in Holt. The large spears are produced by younger plants that have more vigor to put into spring growth than older plants.
"It's the most common misconception," he said. "We deal with it every day. We (asparagus growers) all cook the jumbos from younger beds. The younger plants grow more vigorously and produce a lot more jumbos. The older beds produce more pencil-size spears. The jumbos have more moisture. That makes them sweeter, more tender and the best spears to eat."
Jerkovich's favorite way to eat asparagus: "Coat a fat jumbo spear with olive oil and fresh garlic, then barbecue it until fork-tender (about 10 minutes). It's fantastic."
Native to Europe and Northern Africa, asparagus has been cultivated for at least 2,500 years. Before that, the ancient Egyptians used it as a medicinal herb.
King Louis XIV of France was so in love with asparagus, he had special greenhouses built for the cultivation of "points d'amour" (love tips).
In the Central Valley, it's been farmed since the 1860s.
White asparagus is the same plant as green, but the spears have been blocked from the sun as they grow (usually with piles of dirt, mulch or straw). That prevents sunlight from reaching the spears and keeps them white.
Asparagus side effect
Some consumers complain that their urine smells funny or turns green after eating asparagus. According to the California Asparagus Commission, research points to aspartic acid, a compound found in asparagus.
Four out of five adults can't metabolize that acid, so it goes straight through their digestive system, creating that odor in urine. But other research found that about only one in five people is able to actually smell the odor.
Other sulfur-based compounds in asparagus also have been linked to this side effect.
www.calasparagus.com: The official website of the California Asparagus Commission is packed with asparagus tips, recipes and fun facts.
www.victoriaislandfarms.com: The farm's website contains recipes, history and tips on its major crop.