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Age of Asparagus - Recap

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Alton walks through a largely fallow field. Several things strike him as so curious that if he did not know better he would suspect aliens had dropped them from the skies. This list includes Prince (or the artist formerly known as) and a plant: asparagus officinalis, a member of the lily family that appears in very early spring. This is the king of vegetables, and the vegetable of kings: asparagus. And after a long winter of root vegetables and squash, Alton welcomes the early spring appearance of asparagus as... Good Eats!

If aliens did deliver asparagus, they must have done it quite some time ago, for the word asparagus comes down from from Ancient Persian, a word 'asparag' which means 'sprout'. The term is appropriate; asparagus shoots probe the sky from a buried body called a crown, which can live for as long as twenty years and at its prime extends shoots at the rate of six to eight inches a day. The first efforts of a young crown are thin, watery sprouts called 'sprue' which growers commonly remove and discard to make room for thicker, stronger and more flavorful stalks. (Crowns near the end of their lifespan also produce these substandard sprouts). Some folks regard those small stalks as superior because they are lighter. Alton disagrees, preferring the heavier stalks of a mature crown.

How does the plant produce stalks so early? Towards the end of the growing season it produces long fronds which rapidly convert sunlight, water and other nutrients into carbohydrates. The plant transports these to the subterranean crown which stores them. Some of these carbohydrates keep the cells of the crown alive during the cold months, but most remain stored by springtime, when they power a rapid burst of stalk growth.

Even cut, asparagus continues to grow. In the severed end, sugars convert to structural molecules to seal the injury, while the tip keeps growing. This means the flavor, even when the cut plant is shipped cold, begins to degrade from the moment of cutting. And asparagus is negatively geotropic, a fancy way of saying it always grows away from gravity. This means that stalks must be stored and shipped vertically or they will begin to curl as the tips continue their growth, turning away from gravity. Such “bent” stalks are in no way inferior except appearance and perhaps the ease of cooking them.

Ideally, Alton recommends finding asparagus as a pick your own farm or garden – this is how one gets the freshest stalks. Failing this, at the mega-mart check for stalks that are bright green and stiff, ends that may be a little fibrous but never cracked or dry, and tips that are tight and compact. Be sure to remove one stalk from the middle of the bundle to verify the entire bundle contains quality stalks. Asparagus dries from the bottom and rots from the top. Alton also cautions: check for suspiciously short stalks that seem to fined their way into the middle of a bundle, and discard any floppy stalks: these are a sure sign of age. Alton disdains the flavor of white asparagus, popular in Europe. This is simply asparagus grown without light so that it does not produce chlorophyl.

Back in the kitchen, Alton offers rules for storage based on a fundamental principle: the asparagus stalk is basically a flower. Alton trims a bit off the end of his stalks and then sets them upright in a little water, covering them loosely with a plastic bag. This approach keeps some moisture in without promoting condensation, which leads to mushy tips that are never good eats. And remove that produce-style rubber band!

When he's ready to cook, Alton removes this parcel from his chill chest and contemplates preparation. The woody end of the stalk must come off first. Traditionalists tend to flex each stalk until it breaks, but Alton regards this as wasteful since it commonly removes a lot of good flesh. Additionally, he wants his stalks of uniform length. To achieve this, he bundles the stalks with that produce-style rubber band and measures the length, dividing this number by five and removing that much stalk from the end. So for a ten inch bundle of stalks like the one he's preparing, he removes two inches from the ends. He then slices another inch into thin rounds for use raw as a topping on salads, soups, chicken salad or yogurt based dips. This leaves him with a solid seven inches of stalk.

Raw food advocates believe vegetables are best eaten straight from the ground; that heat robs them of important nutrients. But Alton knows that raw asparagus delivers just three flavor compounds, while cooked it delivers a hundred and twenty flavor compounds (demonstrated with a massive rack of test tubes containing multicolored fluids). The method of cooking matters: dry heat emphasizes amino acids, yielding almost meaty flavors, while moist cooking serves up spring-like, almost grassy flavors.

Alton starts with a moist cooking approach. Most of his recipes call for boiling the plant, but this yields a drab looking, floppy stalk, and a pot of green water – seems the raw food advocates were right about one thing, cooking done improperly does leech nutrients. There has to be a better way. And there is: the microwave. Alton proposes cooking the asparagus in its own internal water, but realizes he'll need just a little watery boost, along with some salt. First he tries adding asparagus and water to a glass baking dish, but... no... the water isn't really touching the stalks. Then he hits on the answer: soak up the water with several paper towels, and rolls the stalks in them! A sprinkle of kosher salt as he's rolling adds flavor. A couple of minutes in the microwave cooks the stalks. Alton can't offer good advice on precisely how long, suggesting that a lack of standardization in microwaves makes this impossible. It may take a few tries to get it right with each kind if microwave. He removes his steaming bundle after three and a half minutes.

This “envelope steaming” process cooks good side dish asparagus, but Alton also uses it as a preparatory step for other dishes, like soups and terrines. What's a terrine? Well, it's a rectangular ceramic dish or the food that... Alton finds it easier to demonstrate. He starts by spritzing an ordinary loaf pan and lining it with plastic film (pushing the film down using a matching loaf pan works well). Next, he blooms some gelatin – adding water so that it can soak before heating it. (Cooks who do not wait for their gelatin to bloom properly will be disappointed.)

At the food processor, Alton adds cream cheese to the bowl, recalling as he does that cream cheese is named after Philadelphia because at the time it was invented in New York, Philadelphia was regarded as a higher class city! To the cream cheese he adds quark (a ricotta like product popular in Europe), chives, ground black pepper and a few jarred anchovies. Farmer's cheese works as a substitute for those who cannot find quark. The anchovies act more as a seasoning than as a food here. Alton takes that for a quick spin to produce a nice, smooth mixture before he turns to the stove.

At the stove, Alton gently heats his bloomed gelatin. When it thickens he adds it to the cheese mixture and gives the food processor another short pulse to mix it. Now he can build his tureen. This starts with a layer of parsley sprinkled on the bottom of the pan, followed by a portion of the cheese mixture and several asparagus spears. Alton alternates the directions of each spear as he builds the layer. He continues adding layers of cheese and asparagus, ending with a layer of cheese, then folds over the plastic and uses his matching loaf pan to press the mixture together before he refrigerates it. Two hours will set it nicely.

While the terrine cools, Alton contemplates a dry cooking method: roasting. To roast asparagus, Alton sets an oven for 500° F and then folds a custom “pan” from a piece of heavy duty aluminum foil, doubled. He lays spears on that and drizzles oil on them, rolling them to coat them. Then he folds the foil edges over until they nearly touch the vegetable on the bottom and sides, but leaves a couple of inches near the tips. He roasts the asparagus for five minutes, then turns the spears with tongs. Another five minutes of roasting finishes them; Alton checks the tips about halfway through that. Deciding they've cooked as much as they should, he folds the extra foil over them to protect them from thermal harm.

To season the roast asparagus Alton grates the zest of a single lemon (no pith, please) over it and follows that with some kosher salt and freshly ground nutmeg. The chief flavor chemical of nutmeg is isoeugenol which melds nicely with the flavors of asparagus. The chemistry, with the addition of citrus, resembles that of a fine white wine. Delicious alone, roasted asparagus is even better with an egg atop it – any preparation that leaves the egg a little runny works well; this dish serves for any meal.

A timer sounds, reminding Alton that his terrine is ready. But when he opens the chill chest he discovers that the Lady of the Refrigerator has found it, and dug in! She tells Alton that asparagus delivers potassium, thiamine, vitamins A and C, and fiber, and is an excellent source of folate – a water-soluble B vitamin. As a co-enzyme (a chemical consumed in an enzyme catalysis that does not take part in the catalyzed reaction) it begins a chain of reactions that support methylation. It is essential to DNA/RNA processing, and it supports cardiovascular health, fights cancers, and prevents serious birth defects (especially neural tube growth errors) during gestation.

Alton comments that the Lady must be carrying twins, judging by the amount of terrine she ate! That earns him a slap, and the Lady departs with the rest of his terrine. Good thing he made two! To remove his dish from the mold (the loaf pan), Alton opens the plastic and sets a cutting board on it upside down, then flips everything over and carefully peels away the plastic so as not to dislodge the parsley. He cuts the terrine into pieces with a serrated knife (a regular knife will not easily cut the asparagus), eating his portion with French bread.

Alton offers some final advice. At some point, those who eat asparagus will need to visit the, ah, recycling room if you like, there to return a portion of the liquids they imbibed. Many will notice, within as little as a half-hour, a characteristic and pungent odor. Scientists disagree on the precise cause. (A pair of scientist puppets voiced by Alton argue over a suspicious beaker, finally spilling the unpleasant contents.) Genetics determine whether one produces this chemical, and whether one can detect its odor or not.

Alton hopes his presentation has encouraged people to sample asparagus – the vegetable of kings. You don't have to be royalty to eat like it!