Asparagus, often referred to by epicureans as “grass”, is the perfect food. It has few calories, sublime flavour, proven health benefits (including anti-cancer properties) and, according to some enthusiasts, it can even perk up your love life.
Eating it is supposed to have the most startling effect. The 17th century herbalist Nicolas Culpepper said that this innocent vegetable “stirred up lust in men and women”.
Whether sexy or not, asparagus makes a sumptuous and completely kosher dish for those who appreciate the very best nature can produce. Recommended to be eaten within a day or two of being picked, it is currently being celebrated in festive style as growers mark the start of the brief British growing season.
Asparagus lovers are being invited to visit farms and watch the spears grow. Given the right conditions they can increase in size by an amazing one inch an hour.
The Greeks and Romans first became hooked on asparagus and discovered a way to freeze it. Chariots and runners would speed from the growing grounds near the River Tiber to the Alps where it was kept in snow for six months until the Feast of Epicurus.
In these days of air-lifted produce, you can buy asparagus in shops all year round. But it deteriorates quickly which is why jet-lagged “grass” is almost always inferior to local varieties.
Despite this, do not turn your nose up when offered white asparagus rushed over from the continent. It tastes just like its green counterpart and is produced by being hidden from light during the growing process.
There are many ways of eating “grass” and it has found its way into several traditional kosher dishes. Take for instance potato and asparagus kugel, from 1,000 Jewish Recipes by Faye Levy.
But surely the only way to truly savour asparagus is au naturel. There can be no better dish than a dozen lightly steamed spears, dipped in melted butter and gobbled down with enthusiasm.
Potato and asparagus kugel — plus chicken soup
● 6 large unpeeled potatoes
● 600g (1½ lbs) thick or medium asparagus spears, peeled and cut into one inch pieces
● 4 to 6 tablespoons cooking oil
● 2 chopped large onions
● salt and pepper to taste
● one large beaten egg
● Bring the potatoes to the boil and simmer until tender. Drain and leave until cool enough to handle. Cover the asparagus spears in salted water and boil for 3 minutes. Then remove, reserving the cooking water, and rinse with cold water.
● Heat two tablespoons oil in a large pan, add onions and sauté over a medium heat until golden brown. Add the asparagus to the onions (half a cup of which should be removed for mixing with the potatoes), season and toss over a low heat for 2 minutes.
● Peel and mash the potatoes, add remaining oil and stir, adding the reserved onions. Season generously and mix in the beaten egg.
● Put half the potatoes in a casserole and add the asparagus mixture. Top with the remaining potato, sprinkle with paprika and bake uncovered for 50 minutes in a preheated oven (180˚C, gas 4). Allow to stand for 10 minutes before serving.
Asparagus has even been introduced into that kosher holy of holies, chicken soup.
● 3 litres chicken stock
● 8 fresh dill stems
● 3 tablespoons chopped dill leaves
● 600g (1½ lbs) asparagus, trimmed and thinly sliced diagonally leaving tips intact
● 3 cups frozen green peas
● Simmer the stock with dill stems in a large saucepan until reduced to about 8 cups. Discard the stems, add the asparagus and peas and bring to a boil.
● Reduce heat and simmer until the asparagus is crisp but tender.
● Stir in the dill leaves and season with salt and pepper.