Asparagus shines at springtime. It is a nutrient-dense crop that peaks in early spring when the weather is still a bit cool. And there are many healthful ways to prepare it: roasted, grilled, sauteed, steamed, blanched or even as a soup.
Elaine Gordon, a certified health education specialist and creator of the healthy recipe site EatingbyElaine.com, likes it grilled or baked. She drizzles a bit of olive oil on top and bakes it at 400 degrees or grills it until tender. A squeeze of fresh lemon juice and grind of black pepper finishes it off.
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Sara Moulton likes it raw. Really.
"The first time I ate raw asparagus was during the '80s at an Italian restaurant in New York," recalled the former executive chef at Gourmet magazine and stars in public television's "Sara's Weeknight Meals."
"Someone else must have pushed me to order it because until then the only asparagus I'd ever encountered was steamed and buttered, and I really liked it just that way," she says. "Raw asparagus? Must be bland and boring."
Turns out asparagus was the centerpiece of a salad dressed with fresh lemon juice, extra-virgin olive oil and a sprinkling of shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano.
"To my surprise and delight, the dish was wonderfully flavorful and refreshing. Crunchy, too," Moulton says.
Gordon and Moulton offer these tips for adding asparagus to your spring meals:
• Asparagus is a low-calorie food (1 cup has 27 calories) that provides many health benefits. In addition to 3 grams of protein and fiber per serving, it is packed with powerful antioxidants including vitamins A, C and K. It offers a great source of folate, which can help reduce birth defects; iron for energy; and potassium for maintaining normal blood pressure.
• At the store, asparagus should be stored vertically, stem down in ice or water. They're probably not in great shape if you find them stacked sideways and on top of each other, so keep looking. Make sure the tips are tight and smooth, not open and feathery, and that the stalks are firm and smooth.
• Size-wise, says Moulton "I've never met an asparagus I didn't like, whether it's thin as a pencil or thick as a hot dog." That said, she recommends the thicker stalks for her salad, and yes, you'll have to peel the outer layer that's unappealingly tough. Still, it's much easier to thinly slice than the pencil-necked guys.
• Purple asparagus turns green when cooked, so consider it for salad. The white variety is grown in a way that prevents the development of chlorophyll, which is what gives the green variety its color.
• Asparagus can be stored in the refrigerator for up to four days. To prevent the spears from dehydrating, wrap the ends of the stalks with a wet paper towel and place them in a plastic bag. Another option is to cut off about an inch from the stalks and place them in two inches of water with the tips upright, covered with a plastic bag. The woody ends of the stalks can be frozen and saved for asparagus soup.