Ode to Asparagus: We Usually Call Him just Gus
After many weeks discussing so many topics, from pre-summer body image, to exercise, music, mindfulness and veganism, I thought it was time that we get back to delicious food! A few months ago I began a series called Ode to Vegetables that I had yet to follow up on. Our first instalment was Ode to Mushrooms, where we talked about their numerous benefits, why they're neither animal nor vegetable, and especially, how to make them shine on the plate.
In the last few weeks though, I've begun to realize that each and every thing I do in the kitchen has a little bit of meaning behind it, and that because I've lived a slightly odd life, I have so many stories that include food but also go beyond it, so moving forward in this series, we'll dive deep into delicious foods and ingredients, not through their properties and flavors alone, but through the very human stories that connect us all, because by now we all know, that food is not just food, it's something deeper, something more meaningful, and it can give us great insight into our lives and the things we value and find joy in.
In this ode to vegetables edition, we're diving deep into the world of asparagus. We'll be discussing some of its wonderful properties, how to prep and cook asparagus, some great flavor and meal combinations to make this veggie shine, and we're going to do it all through some stories of my mother, my grandmother, the musical Cats (yes I said Cats), and wrapping it all up with tales of scarcity and gratitude, so you never take yummy veggies for granted.
When I was picking a vegetable for this week's instalment of this series, I knew exactly what to pick after my wonderful friend Elena, without knowing what she was doing, posted on social media that Taylor Swift had been cast in the upcoming movie production of the musical Cats. Elena is a huge Taylor Swift fan, and didn't know much about what this news meant for all of us Cats fans. I immediately sent the biggest virtual hug her way for making my day so much brighter. How had I not heard about this?!
I grew up watching the original production of Cats on Broadway as well as in the West End, seeing it a total of nine times. That's right, NINE times (which now makes me add those dollars in my head and I realize that was a lot of money! Still... totally worth it!). For those of you who, like my friend, don't know much about it, Cats was one of the most record breaking hit musicals ever to be produced on Broadway, as well as one of the longest running shows. I loved it so much that my mother made a joke one day saying I should see it an equal number of times as the number of lives a cat has, hence the number nine, although of course, if the show hadn't ended in 2000, that number would now be so much higher because nine times was clearly not enough. Good news is I at least hit the target.
Cats is a musical based on the beautiful poems about Cats by T.S.Elliot, and if you've ever had a cat, you'll fall in love with each and every one of them. Through the production, the Jellicle cats tell each of their stories, in the hopes to be chosen by the wisest of cats (Old Deutoronomy) and be reborn again after this life. You meet everyone from cats who live on trains, to mischievous cats who are always getting into trouble, to old and wise ones, to chubby and jolly ones, to narcissistic sexy ones, to magician cats, to sailor and slightly terrorist cats, and then there is Gus:
"Gus is the cat at the theater door
His name, as I ought to have told you before
Is really Asparagus, but that's such a fuss to pronounce
That we usually call him just Gus"
After Elena gave me this little piece of news, that I would once again get to hear the songs my mom and I would belt out as she played them in the piano (because of course we had everything from the Cats sweaters with eyes on the back, to CD's, cassette tapes, and the sheet music for the entire musical). My mom bought the sheet music to see if that would finally inspire me to learn piano for the 13th time, but she didn't get it, I didn't want to play the music, I wanted to feel the music, and you feel the music by dancing. I dreamed as a kid of being Victoria the white cat who had no song to her name (although she will in the upcoming movie), but who had the prettiest ballet solo, the only cat in the entire musical in pointe shoes.
Next year, when the movie hits the big screen I'll probably be singing along since I know every last word of that musical by heart, and I'll probably shed one or two tears while Grizabella sings "Memory", since it was my go-to sleep lullaby for years when I was little. I still find little scraps of paper inside books from time to time with my mother's handwriting and the one or two verses she would never be able to remember when she sang to me. I've been on such a Cats high these past few days since I found out about the film, that when I was thinking of a veggie to talk about this week, Gus the theater cat came to mind instantly, and since his real name is Asparagus, but that's such a fuss to pronounce, it made sense that we make today's episode about that slim little delicious vegetable.
This little tall cute veggie is full of everything from fiber, to potassium, vitamin B6, folic acid, vitamin C, vitamin A, vitamin K, and thiamine, among other nutrients, and it's such a nutrient-dense food that it has been used medicinally for over 2500 years! It contains anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, and because of its high amount of nutrients it has been shown to aid in bone health, heart health, it helps aid in the treatment of urinary tract infections, helps aid in proper digestion, and the list goes on and on. In spite of this list, as with any other food, it isn't magical, nor should you eat this veg and nothing else, but if you like it, if it makes your heart sing, then go and get some and include asparagus in your meals. Here's why I like it though, it's absolutely scrumptious, it cooks in no time at all, and at one point it was forbidden. Yes, you read that right!
An early asparagus obsession
Growing up in Venezuela, and spending many of my summers in New York as a kid, there were two things that went from non-existent to a complete obsession when I could get my hands on them. The first were bagels, totally non-existent in my hometown of Caracas, Venezuela, and the first thing I would eat when my foot hit the sidewalk in New York City and I looked left and then right, to see if I spotted one of these little bagel trucks. If I didn't, my mom knew our first meal in the city would have to be at 3 Guys, a local Greek diner that had the best lox and bagels, and where all the servers knew us by name, which of course was the only reason we went there. It was a little home away from home.
The second obsession, was asparagus.
In Venezuela, you might sometimes find 3 or 4 bundles of asparagus once a year if at all. Still, you had no risk of it selling out because the price was so impossible to pay that it went the way of cherries and raspberries into non-existent in a few short years. When my grandmother would come visit, she would sometimes surprise us by buying a bunch if she found it on sale, still too much for my mom and I to buy it for ourselves. She would bring it home and there would be this incredible ceremonious act around it, one of utter respect for the vegetable.
When we went to New York though, and when we eventually moved there for a while, asparagus was in every corner market, in perfect little bouquets waiting for us to bring them home. When I moved to Spain, a big producer of both white and green asparagus, the first thing I did was check the price tag. My eyes popped out of my head making that annoying bouncy cartoon sound effect and then my jaw dropped to the floor. It was finally here, a time in my life in which Spring would mean my fridge would always have a perfect bouquet of asparagus waiting for me. Best-news-ever.
Paying tribute to an icon
One of those 9 times I was at the Winter Garden Theater after a Cats production, I told my mom I had to go to the bathroom. We got lost somehow and ended up in a strange backstage area, just behind the showers and changing rooms for the cast. Two seconds later, Rum Tum Tugger, one of the best characters of the musical who plays an annoyingly sexy cat all the cat girls swoon over, came out of one of the doors. Full makeup and hair on, and a towel wrapped around his waist. He saw me, or more accurately, how my mouth was probably wide open as this was the only kind of celebrity I ever really dreamt of seeing, and he spoke in perfect Rum Tum Tugger voice, complaining about the hot water and making a joke. I was in awe of this character. Total reverence to someone I admired, and the same thing happened when my family was in front of a cutting board, with a bouquet of asparagus ready to be cooked.
So often we take the food we eat for granted. So often, myself included, we end up forgetting about a bag of lettuce that's in the back of a drawer in the fridge until we have to toss it out. So often we cut and eat simple vegetables without paying attention. So often we eat without awareness and without even tasting our food.
Food and cooking has become a science experiment, a numbers game, a good and bad food dichotomy. A get fuel and bolt moment. Whatever happened to afternoons of making bread as if it was a sacred moment? Whatever happened with teaching kids how generations and generations of our families have been preparing the same dish, pouring yourself into the process, making the meal better and better with each generation that leaves a little mark in it?
I could tell you endless stories of these moments of total presence and awe over ingredients that were either luxury, or abundant but were part of tradition, but today I'll just tell you this, when asparagus is in front of me, I almost feel I should take a bow, and I pay more attention than ever to make sure that not an ounce of it is wasted, and that it is cooked well, so that the moment of eating is as religious as the cooking itself.
What if we did this with all of our food?
The do's and don'ts of asparagus
There are three main kinds of asparagus, we have green asparagus, the one most of us are familiar with, purple asparagus, the typical variety found in countries like France, and white asparagus, mostly found in Spain, with an almost pre-historic look and a very different texture to the other two.
Since the type most of us buy and eat is the green variety, let's focus on that one for now.
How to pick asparagus
- Choose stalks that have ends that haven't dried out too much.
- The tips should be firm and its little glorious bumps shouldn't look like they've opened up, they should be tight and sit firmly together against the stalk.
- The darker the green, in my opinion, the less bitter and more delicious, avoid stalks that have turned slightly yellow.
- Fresh asparagus should snap when you bend them instead of doing yoga-like movements, but never try to snap an asparagus spear at the store, it's deeply disrespectful to that perfect bouquet and the next buyer if you don't take it with you!
- The spring is their season, so take advantage of it, they will be at their most delicious, and least expensive.
- Although very thick spears are now available (think Flinstones's size), they tend to be mealy and have an off-putting taste, don't but the Hulk of asparagus spears, settle for normal pinkie or index finger-sized spears, because there's nothing wrong with average!
How to store asparagus in the fridge
When I say bouquet of asparagus I totally mean it. Treat your asparagus like you would a flower. The very best way to store asparagus in the fridge is by placing them in a mason jar with a little bit of water, just like you would do for some pretty tulips, and place the mason jar in the fridge.
If space doesn't allow, I get it, I have that problem, try to use them within the next day or two of buying them so that the stalks don't dry out too much. A hydrated stalk is a yummy stalk.
Treat it with respect, like I did with Rum Tum Tugger when I saw him in his towel and I would have never even dreamt of bothering him for an autograph. Grab and move them around carefully, because that little spear at the top, well that's basically gold in the plant kingdom. Treat it with kindness and care so it doesn't break off. Imagine it's a brand new iPhone before you got too familiar with it and started throwing it on the couch when you got home.
How to prep asparagus
- The tough bottom ends, usually white or slightly yellow should be cut off. Some people hold the spear in both hands and snap off the end, and the snap is supposed to happen right below the end of the tender part of the spear, leaving you with 100% asparagus goodness, but I happen to disagree. Asparagus saver that I am, I think you can actually lose quite a bit of the stalk this way, so just cut the spears with a sharp knife, at the point where you see the stalk is beginning to change color or is a bit harder to the touch, usually about an inch.
- If you have the time, and only if you have the time, it's sometimes appropriate to peel each stalk. Here's my slightly unusual opinion on this: you only have to do it for very thick spears (more than 1/2 an inch in diameter is what some cooks like to use as a rule of thumb), otherwise, you're removing the delicious and delicate exterior of asparagus, and throwing it in the trash! Well, that's just wrong! Unless your spears are very thick, which might result in older and tougher exteriors, there's no need to peel asparagus in my opinion.
- Although in some applications like quiches, frittatas and risottos you'll need to cut the spears into pieces, when you want to celebrate this vegetable, you should serve it whole, long and pristine just like it popped its little head out of the ground.
Favorite ways of preparing them
Here my mother, grandmother and I would definitely have a disagreement. My grandmother was convinced that the only proper way to eat asparagus was steamed in a steamer basket and then served with salt and lemon, my mother would cook the entire bunch, tied with a string, standing up like a perfect bouquet over simmering water, which I must admit was beautiful to see! She would then serve it with a creamy dill sauce or vinaigrette. All of these ways are good, because... I mean.... asparagus... but in my opinion, among the hundreds of ways to serve asparagus, nothing beats grilled asparagus that are then topped with coarse sea salt, and with a generous pour of a lemony hollandaise sauce on top (if you're a member of our online program you have a recipe for vegan hollandaise sauce in your dips and sauces section!).
Here's a little quick glance list with some favorite ways to prepare them:
- Grandma Clara's method: steamed in a steamer basket and served with salt and lemon wedges. (A little disclaimer, grandma Clara knew a lot about good food but she never cooked!).
- Mom's method: Simmered as a whole bunch tied with string standing up on the pot and then served with a lemon dill sauce or your favorite vinaigrette.
- Kim's favorite method: Rubbed with a bit of high heat oil, salt and pepper, and grilled on the barbecue until tender but still crisp, and with coarse sea salt and hollandaise sauce on top.
- Cooked with any method you love and served with eggless aioli or mayonnaise.
- Roasted with garlic and cherry tomatoes in the oven, with olive oil and thyme or rosemary.
- Steamed, chilled and then tossed with your favorite dressing and served as a cold salad.
- Cut and used in making asparagus risotto, added to egg free omelettes, or as part of a frittata (like the one we teach you how to make in our free breakfast and brunch course!)
- Roasted and topped with our oil free spinach and basil pesto.
- Sautéed with olive oil and pine nuts in a pan, then topped with ground almonds and a bit of lemon zest and black pepper.
- Grilled and topped with romesco sauce.
- Sautéed in a pan with olive oil and garlic, and then broiled under the broiler with some vegan cheese and freshly ground pepper until bubbly.
- Served on top of vegan paella as is tradition in many parts of Spain.
- Cooked in whatever way you love and added to salads.
- Wrapped in puff pastry, baked and served with a lemony sauce for dipping
- Cut and tossed with fussilli or bowtie pasta, with olive oil, garlic, almond parm and some chili flakes.
- The sky is the limit!
There are basically two rules you always have to keep in mind when bringing these babies home: never overcook asparagus or their flavor will change completely, and always, ALWAYS, treat it with the respect and love a cat you admire deserves.
Before I go, a little prayer to the universe to make this film as good as I remember the musical to be, otherwise I'll have to travel back in time to the Winter Garden Theater and I'm not really sure how to do that.