Botanical name: Asparagus officinalis
Some foods already considered particularly tasty in ancient times were often reserved only for the table of kings and emperors. Asparagus and lettuce are among the vegetable delicacies whose consumption was once forbidden or prohibitive for ordinary people, due to their rarity or excessive cost. Now it is possible to extend the period of production (unfortunately, however, reduced in the case of this delicious shoot) and the prices are much more accessible, as well as the varieties created over time - especially starting from the 18th century - are more numerous, while the flavor, color and above all the yield offer a further differentiation between the types.
Origins and history
Probably originating from Asia Minor but also widespread in North Africa and central and southern Europe, it was already cultivated by the ancient Egyptians, known to the Greeks - for example the writer and botanist Theophrastus speaks of it - and was extremely appreciated by the Romans, who have left meticulous manuals on their cultivation and careful preparation advice.
Some emperors even had ships built specifically to supply this vegetable in distant production areas. Cultivated in Byzantium as early as 1100, it spread to the rest of Europe following the example of France, which began its cultivation in the 15th century. In Great Britain the popularity of asparagus reached its peak in the following century, while only at a later time was it also introduced in North America.
Nutritional and beneficial properties
It belongs to the Umbelliferae family, that is the same as garlic and onion, with which the shoots - that is the part of the asparagus we eat - also has in common the abundance of vitamin A, PP, from B group and minerals such as phosphorus and manganese.
The characteristic, unpleasant smell perceptible in the urine just a few minutes after consuming it is due to an acid containing sulfur and characteristic of this plant, better known and always - as far as positive sides - for its diuretic effects. It also has mild laxative and galactagogic abilities - that is, it stimulates the secretion of milk.
Use of Asparagus in the kitchen
Delicious simply steamed, alone or seasoned with a little oil, asparagus is at the moment quite satiating - in fact it contains a fair amount of fiber - and can be recommended in diets that aim at weight loss, due to the low amount of calories that provides and diuretic effect. The richness of trace elements and the light and unmistakable flavor make it precious for a diet that is both healthy and rich in taste.
Having removed the whitish terminal part (which is fibrous, almost tasteless and poor in nutrients), the rest of the stem can be boiled by dipping it with the tips upwards, kept out of the water because they are very delicate and to preserve taste better. For those with no particular weight or health problems, asparagus can be appreciated simply serving it with mayonnaise, or in a fairly large pan together with poached eggs or fried eggs.
Again, it can be covered with Asiago-type cheese, sprinkled with salt and pepper and left to brown slightly the whole.
A risotto with asparagus enriched with a little orange peel cut into thin threads and with crumbled pistachios it could become an excellent first course a little special. In the cold months you can spoil yourself with a Pavese soup enriched with tips and pieces of stem, or prepare a savory pie - ideal for a buffet - by adding it to endive, mozzarella and gorgonzola.
What we eat is neither a root nor the stem of the plant, but the "shoot", the part derived from the rhizomes (modified stems) that emerges on the surface of the ground and which in the white varieties is tucked up, that is to say, covered by the earth, to increase its delicacy and make it pale in color.
Some form of cooking is absolutely necessary for consumption and there are also spontaneous varieties, which are however very bitter.
A successful painting by Édouard Manet portrays a bunch of asparagus, vegetables often depicted in the still lifes of numerous Flemish and Dutch artists of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, as well as also appearing in the "portraits" composed of fruit and vegetables by the Italian Arcimboldo.