Get Cooking: Keep it simple with asparagus

Asparagus, that simplest of foods (and at its peak now in northern climes), is also one of the more complex, both as a plant and in its history.

Like the allium family kids such as garlic, leek, onion and shallot, asparagus long was thought to belong to the lily family. (It’s now known to be more closely related to plants such as agave or yucca.) With lilies, interesting stuff happens both above and below ground. Sometimes we eat from both places; sometimes not.

With asparagus, just from above.

Its history and growth both go back millennia and cover vast lands, due mostly to its ubiquity as a wild plant in most of Asia, Europe and Africa. Anyone could pick and eat it. Two thousand years ago, in his “Natural History,” Pliny used the word “asparagus” to mean “any long green stem” that could be eaten as a vegetable.

When France began to farm it in earnest around the year 1300, both the difficulty of cultivating it and its fragility once harvested caused it to become exceedingly rare and quite costly. In his 1825 “La physiologie du goût,” Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin relates that while the average daily wage, at that time, was “2.50 francs a day,” a bundle of asparagus cost “40 francs.”

The official Latin binomial name is asparagus officinalis, a reference to its prevalent use as a medicine in the Middle Ages, especially for its diuretic qualities. (The “officina” was a monastery’s dispensary. “Eat your vegetables” used to mean “Take your meds.”)

Medievalists didn’t know about the amino acid asparagine that was responsible for those diuretic qualities–an amino acid that you can obtain from many other foods–they just knew that, as Bartolomeo Platina wrote in his (and the very first printed) cookbook, “De honesta voluptate et valetudine,” that asparagus “soothes the stomach gently, causes peeing, and is good for pain in the kidneys.”

About that peeing, a moment. After eating asparagus, “Why such a delicious delicacy as asparagus,” asks Lorelei Mucci, a professor of epidemiology at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School, “results in such a pernicious odor?”

They are due to the asparagus metabolites produced in the body and expelled (rather promptly, you may note) in the eater’s urine. (Their technical names are methanethiol and S-methyl thioesters.) But here is a surprising find from Dr. Mucci and her associates: Only 40 percent of people have the gene that allows for detecting what they call this “rather malodorous bouquet.” The other 60 percent? Noseblind. (The technical name is “asparagus anosmic.”)

Everyone makes it; only some detect it. So watch your “he who smelt it, dealt it” indictments here.

Other controversies swirl around asparagus, mostly about buying and preparing it. Thick or thin stems taste the same and are equally as tender, if prepared properly. Thinner stems are merely offspring of younger below-ground “crowns,” what we might call “bulbs,” as in lily or allium bulbs. Thicker, from more mature plants. (An asparagus plant can produce for upwards of 20 years.)

Any woody toughness resides in the outer layers, so just peel thicker stems (anywhere from 1/2- to 3/4-inch or more in diameter) especially toward the bottom, to reveal the tender innards. The common suggestion to “snap the stem where it naturally breaks” wastes a lot of the nutty, grassy, sweet taste of any asparagus behind the peel. Just cut off an inch or so from anything that you bring home and trim or peel accordingly.

I’ve found that a fine way to keep asparagus fresh in the refrigerator–for a week or more, no foolin’–is to cut off that inch from the bottom, place a bunch into a couple of inches of cold water at the bottom of a clean, empty yogurt or cottage cheese tub and snap a shower cap over the whole top. That system doesn’t stink.

Pasta, Risotto-Style

From Mark Bittman, “The Minimalist Cooks Dinner.” Bittman notes that “You must use cut pasta here, because long pasta is far too unwieldy for this treatment.” Serves 4.


  • 1 pound asparagus
  • 3 tablespoons butter or extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 1 pound penne, gemelli or other cut pasta
  • 6-8 cups good beef or chicken stock, heated
  • Salt and freshly ground  black pepper
  • Freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, optional


  1. Break woody ends off asparagus and peel the stalks if necessary. (If you use thinner asparagus, you won’t have to peel them at all; thicker asparagus should be peeled from the bottom of the flower to the end of the stalk.) Break or cut off the flower ends and cut stems into 1/2-inch sections. (It looks a little nicer if you cut the stems on the diagonal, but this is hardly necessary.)
  2. Put 1 1/2 tablespoons butter or oil in a deep 10- or 12-inch skillet or broad saucepan, and turn heat to medium-high. When butter melts, add onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened and beginning to brown, 3-5 minutes. Add the pasta and cook, stirring occasionally, until it begins to brown, about 5 minutes.
  3. Add a ladleful of stock. As stock is absorbed and pasta swells, add more stock and continue to stir once in a while until pasta is beginning to become tender, about 5 minutes. Add asparagus stems and continue to add stock as needed until the pasta is just about done, 5 minutes or so.
  4. Add asparagus tips and a little more stock, stirring until tips are crisp-tender, the pasta is cooked to your liking and the mixture is moist but not soupy. (Add a little more stock if necessary.) Stir in the remaining 1 1/2 tablespoons of butter or oil and season with salt and pepper to taste. Stir in the cheese and serve.


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