Age of Asparagus Transcript

this episode has 2 titles based on the all-knowing fridge

Woodland Gardens: Winterville, GA

    There are a few things that I accept as part of everyday life, that, if I didn't know better, I would assume had been dropped off by visiting aliens. The list includes Surinam pipa toads, Prince, or the artist formerly known as, and asparagus officinalis, the curious fernlike member of the lily family that seems to just jump out of the ground the first day of spring.
I speak, of course, of the king of vegetables and the vegetable of kings, asparagus. Although I am no king, after a long winter of root vegetables and hard squash, I am seriously ready for the fresh green flavor of ...

[Good Eats theme plays]

Woodland Gardens: Winterville, GA

    If aliens were responsible for asparagus being on the planet, well, they must've visited quite a while ago, because the name "asparagus" comes from an ancient Persian word, "asparag", which means sprout. It's an apt title, seeing as how each of these shoots emanates from an underground root mass called a crown, which can live for up to 20 years. And in its prime, can push up shoots at an amazing rate of six to eight inches a day, which means that, you know, if you had the patience, you could literally sit here and watch asparagus grow. Not very exciting.
    In the very beginning of the season in Spring, very thin shoots will come up first. They're called sprue. They're kind of watery and without substance. Think of them as supermodels. And they're typically culled to make room for the rest of the crop.
    Now crowns in their prime will push up big, strong, stout-looking stalks like this. And some folks feel that the thinner pencil asparagus, which are also grown by very old and very very young crowns, are superior because, of course, they're very delicate. The truth is, they are not better. The big fat guys like this, this is what you want to buy whenever you have the opportunity. They are not more fibrous. They are just, well, a whole lot better. Glad we got that myth out of the way.
    Now you might wonder, how does something so juicy and delicious come up right away in spring without a long growing season? Well, check this out.


    All right, the very last of the season's sprouts are allowed to grow to a height of several feet. They then put out yellow airy fronds and turn themselves into carbohydrate engines, which reload the crown with the fuel that it will need to make it through the winter and then to send up its goodness next spring.

Woodland Gardens: Winterville, GA

    Now as soon as a sprout is cut, it begins converting its sugars into fibers to reinforce the damaged end as the tip continues its ballistic growth spurt. Now even deeply chilled asparagus must be moved to market as quickly as possible, because the flavor goes downhill quickly. As an added challenge, the asparagus has to be shipped upright, or this happens, all right? [shows an asparagus stalk that has bent over] Asparagus is negatively geotropic, meaning that it wants to grow in the opposite direction of gravity, so if you ever see bunches with bent tips, it means the asparagus was either shipped or stored sideways. Nothing wrong with it other than the fact that, well, that does look funny, doesn't it?

    Now I hope that you can avail yourself of a pick-your-own asparagus patch, which in springtime can be found in various locales across our great country. Because believe you me, asparagus doesn't get any better than this. Still, most of us at some point or another will have to rely upon the mega mart, where one-pound bunches can contain from 12 to 24 stalks. But when shopping, always extract a core sample from the middle of the bundle and examine for crisp bright green stalks. The cut ends will be a little bit fibrous, but they should not be dry or cracked. The tips should be tight and compact, with no mushiness. Remember, asparagus dries from the bottom and rots from the top.


Stalk: Bright & Stiff
Cut End: Not Cracked or Dry
Tip: Tight & Compact

Dries from the bottom
Rots from the top

    Also, this is the time to look for little suspiciously short stalks, which always seem to migrate themselves mysteriously to the middle. And beware of any floppiness, a sure sign of age. Believe me, floppy asparagus is no good.
    Now the best asparagus will always occur wherever you are in springtime. Due to microclimates and multiple growing regions and modern transportation, we can enjoy U.S. grown asparagus from roughly January through May, sometimes even into June. Fresh asparagus in fall and early winter typically comes from Mexico or Peru, not that there's anything wrong with that.
    Oh, speaking of foreign soil, in places like Belgium and France, they use etiolation, or light deprivation, to create chlorophyll-free white asparagus, which, to my palate, is so unbearably bitter and so outrageously expensive that, well, we're not even going to talk about it.

Half of the global asparagus harvest is white.

The Kitchen

    [at the refrigerator] If you hope to store your asparagus for more than a few hours post-harvest or post-purchase, then you should treat the spears as, well, the flowers that they pretty much are, okay? Take off any rubber band, if there is one. Trim the bottoms by about half an inch, and place them in some kind of glass vessel, or plastic like this coffee press, with an inch of water. As far as the tops, you want to put on a plastic bag of some type, but keep it loose, alright? You want to keep some moisture in, but no so much that you get condensation. Condensation will make the tips mushy, and that's never good eats.

After California and Washington, Michigan leads all other states in asparagus production.

The Kitchen

    Typically, asparagus must be trimmed of its woody lower stem. The problem is the amount of material that needs pruning depends on the specific specimens under consideration. Now traditionalists will tell you that each spear will signal where it wants to be severed simply by bending it to the break point [demonstrates]. The problem is I'm lazy. And on top of that, I want my asparagus to be uniform in length, so here's what I do. Just bundle it up and apply a produce-department rubber band to hold the spears together. This may have actually come on your asparagus, but you didn't store it on there, did you? Good. Okay, now I measure the average length of the bunch here, 10 inches. Now I divide that by five, roughly, and it turns out to be two. So two inches will be taken straight off of the bunch, and we will feed that to compost. Now compost is my potbellied pig. He's around here someplace.
    Now I'm going to assume that the next inch will be tasty, but still a little on the flossy side. So I'm going to slice it very, very thin, into rounds. And these we will put on salads, soups, chicken salad's really good, or even yogurt for dips. I'm not going to waste that flavor. And that leaves with us seven inches of spear ready for further processing.

The Ancient Greeks used asparagus to treat bee stings and toothaches.

    These days a lot of raw food proponents are telling us that we should eat our veggies straight from the ground, unmolested by flavor and nutrient-robbing heat. Well, if that's how you want to roll, it's okay by me. They're your groceries. But I do want to point out that raw asparagus delivers only a few volatile flavor compounds, while the very same stalks, cooked, deliver over 120 distinct flavor compounds. Cooking releases flavors by softening plant fibers and cellular material, and by setting into motion certain chemical mechanisms.
    Now what's really cool about asparagus is that it becomes two completely different vegetables, depending on whether the heat in question is wet or dry. Dry heat tends to emphasize amino acids, which create flavors that are almost meaty. Whereas moist cooking methods bring out the brighter, spring-like grassy flavors, which, I think, is a pretty good place to start.
    Now when it comes to wet cooking methods, 73 percent of the recipes in my personal cookbook collection call for asparagus to be boiled in water, which is, of course, a thorough conductor of heat and seasonings like salt. And yet, see that? [shows the water in which the asparagus was boiled] That pigment came out of our asparagus, along with flavor and nutrients, which we will now bid forever adieu.
    So we've cooked our asparagus, which now tastes watery, isn't as nutritious as it once was and ... [holds up a cooked stalk] ... would you call that olive drab or asparagus gray? Got to be a better way. Eech!
    [at the microwave] If we want a moist cooking method, why not use microwaves to heat the water already inside the asparagus, thus allowing it to, well, essentially cook itself. It's an intriguing proposition, but if my calculations are correct, and I think they are, we're still going to need an additional quarter cup of water per pound of stalks. And, well, it would also be a really good idea to get some salt in that water, too. I wonder if, um... hmm. [reaches for a baking dish] Yeah, that'll fit.

    So just place a pound of trimmed asparagus into a 5-by-7-inch baking dish, and add your quarter-cup of water. And, well, it's going to be hard to get direct contact. All right, fine. Remove the one pound of asparagus and soak up all that water with three to four pieces of paper towel. Spread out the paper towel and lay on the asparagus like that, along with a half-teaspoon of kosher salt. Then just roll up the asparagus in the wet paper towel, and that'll give us nice direct contact all the way around. Good. 1 Pound Asparagus, Trimmed
Cub Water
tsp. Kosher Salt

    Lay the bundle seam-side down in your microwave, and then zap on high for three to four minutes. Now I know that that's a considerable, you know, difference. But there's no real standardization of heat delivery in the nuker biz. And we are talking about an agricultural product here, so you're just going to have to do this a few times in order to get the hang of it. Me, I'm going with 3 1/2 minutes.

    [after 3 1/2 minutes] Remember, it's going to be steamy, so use your tongs [to remove it].
    [at the counter, unrolling the asparagus] All right, let's have a look. Ah, the color is bright, doneness is perfect, and the flavor, nicely seasoned. [tastes] Mmm, perfect, in fact. Now although this is a fine preparation for the everyday side order, more times than not, I envelope-steam as a preparatory stage for some other application, like a salad, a soup, or a tureen. You know tureens right? I mean, a tureen is a rectangular earthenware vessel, or a kind of chopped, stacked, kind of congealed mixture that you would put inside a ... oh, come on.
    Now just in case you don't have a tureen, you can always reach for a 9-by-5 loaf pan. That'll do the job, but it's going to need a little bit of prep. So spritz it with just a little bit of water. Then lay over a 22-inch-long piece of plastic wrap and mold that to the pan. Using another pan would be a smart way to go about doing that.

    Now we need to bloom the gelatin, so two tablespoons of water go into a small saucepan or even a large two-cup measure. Sprinkle on two teaspoons of plain powdered gelatin, alright. This needs to soak thoroughly before it can be dissolved. If you skip this step and put the heat to it, you'll be sorry. 2 Tbs. Water
2 tsp. Plain Powdered

The first commercially available powdered gelatin was introduced in 1890 by Charles B. Knox.

The Kitchen

    Our tureen continues at the food processor. Eight ounces of cream cheese goes into the work bowl, and I do this the easy way. Here's a fun fact. This stuff is named after Philadelphia, even though it was invented in New York, because back then Philadelphia was considered higher class than its northern neighbor. 8 Ounces Cream Cheese
    All right, next into the work bowl, eight ounces of quark, and I don't mean the elementary particles of which all matter is constructed, but rather the tangy, creamy, ricotta-like product that's quite popular in Europe, and available at most mega marts. If you can't find it, use farmer's cheese instead. Then seven whole chives, half a teaspoon of freshly ground black pepper, and three to five jarred anchovy fillets. Think of them as a seasoning rather than as a food. You know, capers with fins. All right, in they go, and spin it smooth. 8 Ounces Quark
7 Fresh Chives
tsp. Freshly Ground Black
3-5 Jarred Anchovies

    All right, time to dissolve the gelatin over very low heat, the lowest you've got. Then we'll drizzle this directly into the rest of the cheese mixture until thoroughly combined. There, nice and smooth. That's exactly what we want.

    Now it is time to build the tureen. So we're going to start with a quarter of a cup of just chopped parsley. It's going to be tasty and it'll make a pretty presentation later. Oh, I can't believe I said that. Oh well. Then cheese mixture, one quarter, okay? Go sparingly on this or you're going to run out. Then we're going to layer on some asparagus just all the way across the pan, alternating ends, you'll notice. And then just keep building, a quarter at a time, until you are out of asparagus and cheese. Just make sure that you end with the cheese. It'll make a better base. Cup Chopped Parsley

    When everything's in, just fold the plastic over, nice and snug, and then pack it down lightly. And this is where that [other] pan comes in handy once again. There, perfect.
    [at the refrigerator] Refrigerate for at least two hours so it can thoroughly set before you cut into it. Meanwhile, we will execute what may well be the easiest, tastiest food trick I know.

    [at the oven] Crank your hot box to 500 degrees and make sure you've got a rack right dead center. All right, we're going to make ourselves a pan out of heavy-duty aluminum foil. So take a big piece, I'd say at least three feet long. Fold it over, then add one pound of trimmed asparagus. There you go. And add one tablespoon of olive oil for lubrication and to enhance heat and flavor. Just grab the edges and kind of roll that around to coat. And then fold the edges until you've basically created a custom pan. Leave a little room at one end, though, because we're going to need to fold it later, there. Roast for five minutes.

500 Degrees

1 Pound Asparagus, Trimmed
1 Tbs. Olive Oil

    [5 minutes later] Then just give everything a stir. Try to get each piece kind of rolled over there to expose the new side. And then we're going to continue roasting for another five minutes. Now usually when about two minutes are left, I take a look at the tips. And if they're looking at all, you know, kind of scary cooked, fold over that extra bit of foil to cover them just for a little tip protection. There.
    [5 minutes later] And finally, we are done. Make sure you use two tongs for this. It's really the only way to go.

    As for dressing the final results, we'll use the zest of one medium lemon. No pith, please. Also, say, half a teaspoon of kosher salt. Just sprinkle that on. And here's my secret ingredient, nutmeg. Always keep one with me. Half a teaspoon, freshly grated. Do not use that powdery stuff from the tin, you hear me? There. Zest From 1 Medium Lemon
tsp. Kosher Salt
tsp.  Freshly Grated

    Now the primary flavorant in nutmeg is isoeugenol. It plays especially well with the amino acids and even the sulfur compounds in asparagus. Think of it this way. Most of the flavors in here are what oenophilesthat's wine peoplewould call green or grassy. Well, when you combine those flavors with the vanillin compounds in oak, you get... a big, expensive California chardonnay. Now consider that isoeugenol is used in the manufacture of vanillin, you see the same type of relationship right here. Add a little citrus, and you've constructed a dish with all the flavor complexity of a bottle of good white wine. That is what I call good eats.
    You know, the only thing that could possibly make this any better, that's right, a fried egg. Over easy, sunny-side up, anything that delivers a runny yolk. That, my friends, is breakfast, lunch, dinner, or, better yet, all three.
    [timer beeps] Ooh, tureen time.

The Ancient Roman Emperor Augustus demanded that executions take place "quicker than you can cook asparagus".

The Kitchen

GUEST: The Lady of the Refrigerator
            Scientist Puppets 1 & 2

AB: [opens the refrigerator, only to find that the Lady of the Refrigerator is eating it] My tureen!
LADY OF THE REFRIGERATOR: Well, I'm sorry, Alton. I was hungry. This is a great fridge to be in, by the way.

    The Lady of the Refrigerator digs my tureen.

AB: That's cool, but did you have to dig quite so much of it?
LOTR: Well, among other things, besides potassium and thiamine and vitamin A and vitamin C and fiber, asparagus is a super source of folate.
AB: Well, of course, and folate is a water-soluble ...
LOTR: It's a water-soluble B-vitamin, a B-complex vitamin, that plays a crucial role in RNA and DNA metabolism, as folate coenzyme is very important for the synthesis of methionine, which in turn plays a role in the synthesis of s-Adenosylmethionine, which is a major player in methylation, which is, of course, important for cardiovascular disease, fighting cancers. And it's especially important for mommies-to-be, because it can help prevent birth defects.
AB: Oh, mommies-to-be, huh? Well, judging from the amount you chugged down, you must be carrying twins, ha-ha!
LOTR: Oh gosh, how dare you [slaps AB], and just for that, I'm going to take the rest of this tureen down to the freezer, pour myself a cold one, and enjoy the rest.

    Well, you know what? I'm going to let her have that because she seems really grumpy, and I believe I recall reading a paper about folate helping depression. Besides, I made two! Ha!
    [at the countertop] All right, turning out is where the plastic is really really handy. Just unfold everything, place a cutting board on top, preferably one that you'd like to serve on, and demold. Be very careful pulling off the plastic so as to not dislodge the parsley. And always use a serrated knife to cut, or you will not get through that asparagus. If all goes well, aw, it's pretty.
    [at the table] Mmm. Wow, I like it even better once it's warmed up a little bit. Served with some hearty French bread, it's the perfect luncheon. Well, now that we've enjoyed our rites of spring, such as they are, there is one more asparagus issue I feel that we must address. And well, come here. [leaves his food] Don't touch that.
    Sooner or later, you will be called upon by nature to, uh, shall we say, recycle your daily beverages. Now if you've enjoyed asparagus in as little as half an hour prior to the actual recycling act, you will notice a peculiar and potentially potent aroma, or at least some of you will. Now despite significant scientific attempts to unravel the mephitic mysteries of asparagus, confusion persists for two main reasons. One, no one's been able to ascertain exactly which of the many complex compounds in asparagus is responsible for the job, so to speak.

SCIENTIST PUPPET 1: Yeah, I know what that smells like. That smells like methanethiol.
SCIENTIST PUPPET 2: No, no, no. No, that's asparagusic acid.
SP1: What, are you kidding? That's methanethiol.
SP2: No, it isn't, it's definitely asparagusic acid.
SP1: No, it's methanethiol, you moron!
SP2: Aspara... oh, come here. Oh. [glass of urine falls and breaks]
SP1: Oops.
AB: Fantastic. Now instead of smelling like springtime around here, it smells like a New York subway in August. You know, you Einsteins better get a mop and some biohazard baggies and sanitize my floors.

    Here's the other complication. Genetics determine whether you are a smelly excreter or not an excreter, or whether you are a detector or a non-detector, in which case you don't even know what this conversation is about, which is probably a good thing.

AB: You know, you guys better get every last drop up, or you're in big trouble. Get it? Never mind.

The Chinese used asparagus to treat arthritis because the asparagusic acid is a diuretic and can ease swelling.

Woodland Gardens: Winterville, GA

    Well, I certainly hope we've encouraged you to get a little more springtime on your plate. Asparagus may be the vegetable of kings, but you don't have to be royalty to eat like it. See you next time on Good Eats.

Transcribed by Michael Roberts
Proofread by Michael Menninger

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Last Edited on 09/27/2011