The most memorable description in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s book Love in the Time of Cholera is the one that amusingly describes the pungent aroma of one’s urine after eating a plate of asparagus… Hmmm. Asparagus was virtually unheard of in Manila markets in the early 1990’s. The realization that it actually could thrive in certain areas of the Philippines (Bukidnon) and up north somewhere led to a sudden increase in asparagus farming. The harvest is either exported to Japan and other Asian markets or sold to a growing local market. Asparagus (Asparagus officinalis) is native to various areas in Europe. It has been cultivated since at least the first century and was believed to have medicinal properties (possibly due to that odd odor…) and thus the name officinalis which means “of the dispensary”.
Our locally grown asparagus is terrific. From pencil thin to a medium in diameter, they taste great and are very reasonably priced. They are now regularly available at groceries, markets and specialized food stores. When buying, look for tips that are “tight” and not beginning to blossom. Asparagus are the shoots of a plant that could be described as “grassy” – but not even – as a full grown spear turns into a tall leafless frond. If the tips are starting to bud they were picked too late. I prefer asparagus spears that are medium in diameter, the really thin ones here aren’t quite as good as they should be. To store put in a vessel of water and stand asparagus upright and place in the fridge. Eat within a day or two of purchase.
Asparagus also comes in a “white” guise. These are actually green ones that are covered with soil and never allowed to see the sun therefore they remain white (no chlorophyll, not white as in not tanned, silly). In Europe, white asparagus is the “it” asparagus. Because it requires so much labor, it is also wickedly expensive. The flavor differs from the green asparagus as well and afficionados of white turn their noses up at the green. Believe it or not, we started to produce white asparagus here as well. When they first came out, I would buy everything I could find in the organic markets (1/2 or 1 kilo per week) to encourage them to grow more. It got to the point that my wife would roll her eyes every time I came home with the white asparagus as they were extremely tough and woody. Only now do I read and learn that the key to good white asparagus is that once it is cut, it must be kept at about 34 degrees F until it is cooked or it develops a very stringy, woody texture. Ahah! Forget that! Too bad, as I really like white asparagus but I don’t think we can meet those stringent handling requirements here in the Philippines just yet. I include a nice photograph of terrific looking local white asparagus I got last year. They have disappeared from the markets in the last 6 months…boohoo. But they didn’t taste great anyway.
There is also a brilliant purple variety of asparagus that is typically grown in France. I have never seen it nor tasted it so I can’t tell you much about it. I could eat asparagus 2-3 times a week if not for its high uric acid content (bad for gout) and they are great just steamed, blanched, grilled, etc. If you have never tried grilling the vegetable, do so the next time you have your barbecue fired up. Take asparagus spears and wash them. Cut off the bottom ends, drizzle with olive oil, salt and pepper and grill briefly until you get some charred marks. The grilling intensifies the flavor. They are good just like this, or with added balsamic vinegar, or as part of a large antipasto platter.