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In Maine, we have enough strawberry and clam festivals to pack the summer calendar. So it makes perfect sense that in Stockton, California, people celebrate the incredible and versatile asparagus at an annual asparagus festival, complete with a Chef of the Fest competition, an asparagus-eating contest, and a Spear-it Run. While we don't have a festival devoted to asparagus, we do want to highlight this remarkable and very popular vegetable, which is at its best locally in early to midspring.

Asparagus is one of the first vegetables that humans ever cultivated; people ate it as far back as 4,000 BC, according to evidence in Egyptian tomb drawings. Early Greeks believed it was a cure-all for nearly every ailment, and they were certainly on to something. A single serving of asparagus has more than half the folic acid we need every day; it has been shown to help prevent liver disease; and studies conducted by the National Cancer Institute found a cancer-fighting enzyme to be more abundant in asparagus than in any other food tested. Packed with minerals and vitamins, asparagus is a superhero among vegetables, providing more nutrients than many others. It is loaded with vitamins A, B6, and C, and with iron, potassium, riboflavin, niacin, and thiamine. Asparagus contains neither fat nor cholesterol, and it has only 20 calories per half-cup serving!

This herbaceous, perennial plant grows very well in New England. Although asparagus takes a couple of years to get started, it will continue to produce every spring for up to 20 years. New plants are typically divisions from the crown of an older plant and must not be harvested the first year. Asparagus beds require very little maintenance, and the tiny spears poking through the soil are among the best signs that spring and summer are really here. Just remember that the plants like their roots relatively dry, so a raised bed is a wonderful place for starting your asparagus garden.

Now for the tasty stuff. We love asparagus and grab the white or purple variety whenever we see it, since it is not often available. These colored options do have slightly different flavors, the white being a little more delicate, but they are interchangeable in recipes. You can steam, roast, grill, or stir-fry your asparagus. The quick-cooking, waterless methods preserve both the nutritional content and antioxidant powers. One of our favorite ways to enjoy asparagus is to blanch it quickly until just tender, then submerge the stalks for one minute in ice water. This retains the bright color and slightly crisp texture we love. We serve asparagus on a big platter with crusty bread, some cheeses, and an aioli for dipping.

Don't forget that asparagus can be delicious at any time of day, perhaps in an omelet for breakfast or in a salad for lunch. The three recipes we provide offer suggestions for a soup, appetizer, and main course. Enjoy!

Tags: asparagus, jim stott, jonathan king, Dining in, recipes, spring vegetables

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