The Royal Couple
Asparagus and Artichoke, my favourite Spring vegetables!
Many times you’ve might heard suggestions on eating foods in-season. These are fruits and vegetables that have been harvested and eaten at their peak, when the nature produces them. Seasonal eating is not a trendy movement but is common sense, what people used to do through most of history when supermarkets and processed food were unknown and it delivers numerous benefits.
By eating a food in-season, you obtain the most of its flavour and nutritional potential. If this is accompanied by buying it locally you end up with the most fresh product possible and additionally you support local farmers and small-size enterprises. At the same time, those foods are or should be generally cheaper. But for me the most important aspect is the establishment of a connection with the calendar and seasons through food. As I commonly say to my friends, it doesn’t make sense for example to eat tomatoes on a cold and grey winter day, when you’ve connected them in a refreshing salad on a sunny, summer afternoon. Following this habit you learn also to appreciate much more food by simply missing it. It can be there constantly (particularly in modern supermarkets, shipped maybe from the other side of the globe) but you are not allowed to touch it and smell it, you need to wait, sometimes many months.
Winter is already over, that means no more cabbages, spinach and cauliflower. But who cares, spring is here to deliver it’s own babies; and what babies, two of the most particular vegetables with characteristic tastes, having colour in common. They are green with less or more violet notes.
Asparagus is being referred as the king of vegetables and undoubtedly deserves this role. It has a royal appearance, tastes great and provides numerous important micronutrients. I encountered it first time in my life after moving to Germany. Even though asparagus grows in good quality in Greece, my family was not familiar with it and was never introduced on our table. I have to admit that I was also not curious enough to discover it by myself. In Germany, even if you are not familiar with it, it's impossible to miss it. Approximately at the end of April starts the so-called ‘Spargelzeit’ that lasts for a couple of months. During this period asparagus is abundant, everyone eats it, many farmers place their stands on the streets selling it and most of the restaurants advertise their recipes on the menus. Germany produces typically white asparagus that grows underground without synthesising chlorophyll and is harvested as soon as the heads pop out from the soil.
In my first spring in Germany I followed the habits, bought some white asparagus stalks and invited a German friend to eat them. I didn’t know exactly how to cook them but following my instinct I peeled off some of the skin that was looking fibrous and placed them in boiling water for few minutes. I served them simply with some olive oil, lemon and salt/pepper, which is still my preferred way to eat asparagus. The only thing I’ve changed is the cooking medium. Most of flavour molecules in asparagus (either native or produced upon cooking) are water-soluble. That means if asparagus is blanched/boiled in water those molecules escape in the water and flavour diminishes. On the contrary, when asparagus is cooked in fat retains the majority of the flavour molecules. Therefore, by sautéing asparagus in olive oil or butter for few minutes you end up with a crispy, tender food, full of flavour (1).
After finishing that first meal, my friend warned me that when I will go for a pee I might notice some weird smell coming from my urine as a result of eating asparagus. I was surprised to hear that and I couldn’t wait to confirm it. Indeed, some minutes later I was astonished to smell this rather unpleasant odour (characterised as perfume by Marcel Proust) coming from my urine and for some reason I was excited. Scientific evidence suggests that this results from the metabolism of one and only particular chemical present solely in asparagus, namely asparagusic acid. The latter is broken down upon digestion into a group of sulfur-containing compounds that are volatile, entering the gaseous phase in room temperature, thus giving rise to this characteristic smell. Asparagusic acid is not volatile per se and thus asparagus itself does not deliver the same ‘aroma’. Interestingly there is evidence that not everyone can detect this odour. This gave rise to a debate if this is due to the fact that some people metabolise differently and/or do not absorb properly those molecules and thus do not produce the odour, or is due to inability of some people to smell it. Some studies have been contacted to resolve this issue and results suggested that both cases are valid. The reason behind the inability to produce the odour in detectable amounts is unknown, whether the inability to smell is of genetic origin (2).
Except cultivated asparagus there is also the one growing wild. The stalks of the latter are very thin and long and they have more woody texture and feeling. Wild asparagus is a delicacy very difficult to find; you need to know where it grows and collect it by yourself or know people that can get it. I was fortunate to eat it two times in my life, one in Vita's house in Puglia-Italy and one in my native town in Greece. The second time my mother bought it unintentionally in the city market following my wish to eat asparagus during my visit the spring of last year. She went for asparagus but she didn’t know what treasure she was getting. When I met her in a cafeteria I asked her to describe me what she found and how much she paid and I realised that she got the wild one. I remember my excitement heating red. I asked her to point me to the person who was selling it and the exact spot in the market. I run directly there, and I found the old lady having on her bench the long thin stalks standing proudly in some plastic water cups. I asked her to buy the whole batch and tried to negotiate the price. She resisted giving me better price claiming that she struggled to collect by herself one-by-one the entire load. I didn’t insist much, I got everything, I ate few that day and brought the rest back to Germany.
Wild asparagus is eaten typically cooked with eggs in a frittata. To commemorate that memory I present here this recipe using normal, cultivated asparagus.
Frittata with asparagus
(in a 18cm-diameter, nonstick pan)
few stalks of any type of asparagus
few tablespoons of olive oil
parmigiano or other hard cheese
- Bent each asparagus stalk until it brakes naturally. Keep the upper part, cut it in smaller pieces and sauté in olive oil for a couple of minutes in medium to high fire.
- Beat the eggs in a bowl together with the cheese, salt and pepper.
- Add the egg mix in the pan with asparagus, reduce fire to medium, cover with a lid and cook until the mixture snaps of the pan (the egg should be almost set but not completely).
- Flip the frittata using a plate and cook for few minutes the other side without the lid this time.
- Try not to overcook the frittata but keep it a bit juicy.
- Serve and enjoy together with a salad of your preference.
When I encountered first time an artichoke I thought: How the hell can I eat this thing? I’m sure most of you felt the same in such an occasion. Artichoke looks like a queen, dressed up in its fabulous armor-like dress made up of dozens of petals. Sometimes the petals contain little thorns on their tips that are not directly visible but be sure to feel them if you put your hand too much onto this remarkable flower. Artichoke can be cooked directly as a whole (maybe after just removing the small petals at the base and the tips of the bigger ones) and eaten as a snack after boiling it in water until the petals are soft enough as to be easily pulled off. Then the petals can be dipped or not in a sauce and pulled through the teeth to remove and eat the soft, delicious part, discarding the rest fibrous part.
But if you want to incorporate artichoke in a recipe you need to undress it, discarding most of the outer petals and keeping the inner ones together with the most precious part, its heart which is buried deep inside the core. Undressing an artichoke is not of the easiest things to do but after some practice is rather straightforward; personally I enjoy a lot peeling artichokes and I find it very meditative. You need a small paring knife and a bowl with water containing some squeezed lemon halves; artichokes are getting oxidised fast and turn brown, like apples, and lemon helps to slow down this process. For a thorough description with nice pictures you can check this link
Artichokes have incredible health benefits and amazingly have the highest antioxidant load per serving than any other vegetable and rank fourth among all foods and beverages tested (2)! That means they can fight cancer and other diseases like proper warriors. This high antioxidant property has among others also benefits in liver health by helping to reduce and eliminate toxins from the body and promote repair of damaged liver cells. Because of that, artichokes are considered a cure for hangovers. Having in mind that next time that you get artichokes, keep some petals maybe freeze them and next time you feel a hangover get some and chew them.
If you see them in a market and you decide to put your hands on them, select the ones that feel solid and heavy and their petals are tightly closed.
Artichokes can be incorporated in many recipes. Here is my suggestion:
(in a 24cmx8cm baking pan)
Dried or fresh lasagne made with durum wheat semola and water (calculate she sizes to make enough for at least three pan layers)
sliced 3-4 medium size artichokes
one chopped leek
- Sauté artichokes and leek for 10min with a couple tablespoons of olive oil and season.
6 tablespoons flour
ca. 0.8l milk
- Melt butter, add flour, whisk to dissolve and to cook in medium to strong heat until the mix doesn’t taste the flour and is crumbly. If not, add a bit more flour.
- Add the milk in batches and mix constantly. First mix until milk incorporates completely and then add the new batch. Do not worry for the chunks - they will dissolve later.
- Finish the milk – you should obtain a creamy sauce.
- Remove from fire, season and mix.
plus 1-2 mozzarella balls and parmigiano
- Spread a thin layer of béchamel in the pan.
- Place on a lasagne layer.
- Spread half of the artichoke mix, some béchamel and mozzarella, grate some parmigiano.
- Repeat one more. Finish with a lasagne layer and cover with the rest of béchamel, grate some parmigiano.
- Bake covered with foil at 180°C for 30min. Uncover and cook for another 30min. Turn off the fire and let it cool down, ideally in the oven.
(1) This property is not universal for all vegetables. Others, like broccoli and green beans, contain mostly fat-soluble flavor molecules and thus should be cooked accordingly in water.
(2) Pelchat ML, et al. Chem. Senses (2011);36:9-17
(3) Halvorsen BL, et al. Am. J. Clin. Nutr. (2006);84:95-135
* This is a revised version of the original post