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A versatile icon of the springtime table, asparagus is an ingredient that has been part of Italian culinary history since Roman times. It would be difficult to find one restaurant, especially among the most popular and renowned, that didn't feature it on its menu.
Prepared in a thousand ways, from simple to the most sophisticated, some varieties of asparagus are the true pride of Italian agricultural production.
The history of asparagus
Each time we buy asparagus, we are actually eating spears, called shoots, of asparagus officinalis. The plant is native to Asia, and was introduced to the Mediterranean basin over 2,000 years ago. Egyptians considered them a delicacy. The ancient Romans especially liked them accompanied by eggs, and they were considered aphrodisiacs. The emperors were gluttons for them: they loaded ships, known as "asparagus", to transport them into the ports on the Mare Nostrum. They ate them blanched in boiling water and seasoned, as Augustus would, with melted butter. Cato, Theophrastus and Apicius sing of its goodness and diuretic qualities.
What is asparagus?
Asparagus is a vegetable that is rod-shaped, white or purplish green in colour, 18 to 22 cm in length and 1 cm in diameter. The base is and woody, while the tip is soft. The only Italian asparagus that boasts the DOP label is the white Asparagus of Bassano, with its bittersweet taste.
Three other Italian types have instead earned the IGP: the green asparagus of Altedo in the provinces of Bologna and Ferrara, which is very tender and known for its delicate taste and essence, the white asparagus of Cimadolmo as well as that of Badoere, in Veneto.
How asparagus is grown
Asparagus can be grown from its seed or from roots, known as "crowns", which have already been formed for years. Growing it from the seed requires more time and patience; the ideal soil is fresh, soft, sandy, free of stones and well drained. Between March and October, pockets 20-25 cm deep are made in well-worked soil that is enriched with organic matter.
The crowns must be placed in each hole at a distance of 40 cm from each other, and covered with a layer of soil 10-15 cm deep. It is harvested at dawn from March to May, by hand, and sold in bunches of 250 grams, tied together with a rubber band. White asparagus, which sprouts entirely underground (without light), has a mild flavor. Green and purple asparagus, with its fruity taste, is white asparagus that comes out of the ground and gains colour due to photosynthesis.
How to eat and cook asparagus
Asparagus must first be briefly boiled in salted water, or steamed. It takes approximately five minutes to cook, which may vary depending on its thickness. While cooking, one must always try to preserve its tender tips. The best way to cook asparagus is by tying the stems so that only the lower part is cooked in boiling water, while the shoots, popping out of the water, will be steam cooked. For this purpose, there are special pots that are tall, narrow and have a cylindrical shape.
Tip: to preserve the bright color of green asparagus, cool in very cold water immediately after cooking them al dente. Asparagus pairs well with risotto as well as shellfish. One of the classic winning combinations is with fried eggs, sprinkled with Grana Padano, or in an omelet. Another successful pairing is with cold cuts: asparagus can be boiled, sprinkled with melted butter and Grana Padano cheese, and then wrapped in pairs in a slice of prosciutto crudo that has been aged 24 months. Asparagus may also serve as an ingredient for dessert: boiled, blended and added to a leavened cake, offering a surprising result.