Talk about giving other produce an inferiority complex! Assistant professor of horticulture Anusuya Rangarajan of Cornell University explains that asparagus contains more of the antioxidant glutathione--one of the most potent cancer fighters--than any fruit or any other vegetable. It's also an excellent source of folic acid, a B vitamin that helps protect against cervical cancer, heart disease and some birth defects. Plus, it's low in calories, with only about four per spear. For maximum health benefits, Rangarajan says, "buy the freshest and steam it lightly."
Chefs Go Green
Bruce Auden of Biga in San Antonio pairs light asparagus tempura with rice noodles and watermelon. Anita Lo of Annisa in New York City garnishes asparagus soup with white asparagus tips, fried clam bellies and herb-lemon crème fraîche. Frank Ruta of Palena in Washington,D.C., serves a poached duck egg and crispy asparagus cake in a creamy asparagus velouté.
Roscoe Zuckerman was an asparagus visionary: Back in the 1940s, he was one of the first farmers in the nation to grow green asparagus as well as white. He left his pioneering legacy in the hands of his son, Albert, who died this year at the peak of asparagus season, and his grandsons, Roscoe and Edward. At the 4,500-acre Zuckerman Family Farm, 80 miles east of San Francisco, Roscoe and Edward grow the exquisite white, green and viola (purple) spears favored by Bay Area chefs, such as Hubert Keller (F&W Best New Chef 1988) of Fleur de Lys. Roscoe is committed to reintroducing the public to colossal (more than an inch wide) asparagus, but he's passionate about all of his varieties: "Asparagus is the vegetable of the gods" (209-466-0386).
Serving asparagus on plates decorated with bas-relief asparagus may seem redundant, but it harks back to eighteenth-century French trompe l'oeil. Paintings of fish on fish plates gave rise to oyster plates, artichoke plates and asparagus plates. "Just like oysters, asparagus was a luxurious commodity deserving of its own dish," says Christina Prescott-Walker, director of European ceramics at Sotheby's. Adds John Loring, design director at Tiffany, "In the nineteenth century--when the newly rich loved to have complicated table settings--the asparagus plate became the latest must-have service piece." Most antique asparagus plates available today are French majolica, like a nineteenth-century Lunéville plate, from James II Galleries in New York City (set of eight, $2,500; 212-355-7040).