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Asparagus: Healthy Delicacy

Tuesday, 05 Apr 2011 10:40 AM

Spring is asparagus season and a good time to enjoy this tender vegetable that has been considered a delicacy for thousands of years. With very few calories, it adds an indulgent feel to any meal while delivering beneficial nutrients, including a key one that reduces risk for heart disease, some cancers, and dementia.

An Unusual History

We don’t often think of vegetables as a treat but asparagus has held a special place in history. Ancient Egyptian, Greek, and Roman leaders prized it. In Rome, demand drove prices so high that only the wealthy could afford it, and it was considered an aphrodisiac (although there’s no evidence that the asparagus of today possesses such a quality).

Asparagus was so strongly associated with indulgence that with the fall of the Roman Empire, it was outlawed as a sinful food. But with the Renaissance, its popularity was restored. In France, King Louis XIV was so smitten with the vegetable that he had special greenhouses built so that he could enjoy his asparagus year-round.

Nutritional Power

Asparagus contains a combination of vitamins, including A, Bs, and C, minerals, and fiber. It’s a particularly rich source of one important B vitamin, folate (known as folic acid in synthetic form in supplements and when added to foods). Cereals and many other grain products are enriched with folic acid because a deficiency of the vitamin among pregnant women increases the likelihood of birth defects.

Folate helps to protect against heart disease, dementia, and cancers of the colon, cervix, breast, pancreas, and stomach. It may also reduce the odds of stroke and age-related hearing loss.

About five spears of larger asparagus, about one-half inch in diameter at the bottom of the stalk, when boiled, contain about 111 micrograms (mcg) of folate, slightly more than one-quarter of the daily requirement of 400 mcg. As a comparison, these are some other foods that provide a similar amount of folate:

• One-half cup of cooked spinach
• 2 cups of raw spinach
• 1 cup of chopped, cooked broccoli
• 1 cup of boiled green peas
• Nearly 3 cups of shredded romaine lettuce
• Nearly 2 cups of boiled turnip greens

All these other vegetables also provide other nutrients and are definitely good choices to include in a diet, but they aren’t exactly treats.

Enjoying Asparagus

Once cooked, asparagus has a delicious taste and texture, hot or cold. Cut off any tough ends and steam, boil, or grill it. It can also be eaten raw in salads.

• To grill: Drizzle or lightly brush with olive oil, season with salt and pepper, and grill asparagus on the barbecue or roast it in your oven. In an oven preheated to 400 degrees Fahrenheit, it will take about 10 minutes, depending on the thickness of the asparagus spears.

• To eat cold: Steam or boil (don’t overcook — it should retain a bit of crispness) and let cool. Season with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil, salt and pepper. Other simple options: Sprinkle with a few drops of fresh lemon juice or balsamic vinegar; or add finely crumbled goat or feta cheese or freshly shaved parmesan.

There are about 20 calories in five spears of asparagus. Grilling or seasoning doesn’t require much olive oil — just thin but even covering, easily done with a brush or a narrow drizzle spout on a bottle of oil. Cheese is calorie-dense, but it only takes a tiny bit to add flavor, so even then, this is a low-calorie treat.

Unlike King Louis XIV, we don’t have to build greenhouses to enjoy our asparagus. And when it’s in season, the price should be better than at any other time of year.


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2011-40-05
Tuesday, 05 Apr 2011 10:40 AM
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