It is that time of year when the first bunches of tender, green asparagus stems arrive in our shops. How delicious to enjoy them simply steamed, griddled with a sprinkling of salt or with a soft poached egg nestling on top.
We have been relishing asparagus for centuries. In fact the oldest surviving cookery book, Apicius's third century ACE, De re Coquinaria, gives a recipe. The Egyptians, the Greeks and the Romans all cultivated this member of the lily family, while the Romans dried them for use in the winter.
Late in the 17th century, asparagus was sold in the first week in February. The prosperous were delighted to pay for this out-of-season delicacy, produced by setting the crowns in compost which was heated naturally and subsequently covered with glass bells to force the vegetable to "flower" early.
In contrast, religious Jews may not welcome asparagus with the same passion, as they are concerned with the "infestation" sometimes found under the triangular scales along the sides. To satisfy commandments, stems must be shaved down the floret to the asparagus tip.
Historically, asparagus has been used in folk medicine. Now science has caught up. Recently it was discovered that the plant contains several anti-cancer compounds, including a phenomenal substance called ursolic acid which killed cancer cells in laboratory tests. Also studies have found that increased intake of asparagus reduces the occurrence of lung cancer.
It is thought that it may help to prevent colon cancer as it also contains fructooligosaccharides, which encourage the growth of probiotic bacteria in particular in the colon. This chemical seems to enhance calcium and magnesium absorption and should help in the fight against brittle bone disease.
Apart from these wonderful bonuses, asparagus has also been found to contain diosgenin, a natural anti-inflammatory and so helpful in combating symptoms of arthritis. It can detoxify the liver, cleanse the blood and also contains phytosterols now known to reduce blood cholesterol, lower high blood pressure and have been used in conjunction with other plants to reduce weight loss.
Interestingly, these vegetables are related to a plant that grows in Israel's deserts. In contrast to our tender, almost sweet delicacy it grows long sharp prickles and has been named asparagus horridus.
But do we need an excuse to eat such a luscious vegetable? True, it is wonderful to know that indulging can provide health benefits and not add pounds. But relish the flavour and use asparagus as a wonderful ingredient with risottos, in fresh salads, with broad beans or mixed with pasta for a delicious light and healthy meal.
To prepare, simply snap the stems away from their woody ends, saving the woody parts to flavour soup, clean and drop in boiling water for 2-4 minutes - until just knife-tender. Then drain and plunge into cold water to retain their colour.
You can add asparagus to cooked pasta (mix with low-fat cream cheese for an instant sauce), risottos, or to have cold as a salad with smoked salmon.
Asparagus and Jersey Royal Frittata
This is a substantial omelette that can be cut into slices and served hot or cold with salad. Serves 4-6.
● 2 bunches asparagus, remove woody parts – retain and use for soup – and cook tender stems for two minutes
● 2 teasps. olive oil
● 1 large onion peeled and chopped
● 225g, 8oz boiled Jersey Royal potatoes
● 1 large mozzarella ball
● Freshly milled black pepper and salt
● 6 free range organic eggs
● Finely grated rind of ½ lemon
● Freshly chopped chives
● Sweat onion gently in oil until soft.
● Slice potatoes, placing them on top of the onion layer. Beat eggs adding salt and pepper and lemon rind.
● Chop mozzarella into chunks, reserving a quarter for the top.
● Add chopped chives and blanched asparagus.
● Pour mixture into pan, cooking over low heat ensuring that the base does not burn.
● When frittata is almost set, cover with remaining mozzarella and grill until firm and golden.