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Asparagus officinalis is a flowering plant species in the genus Asparagus from which the vegetable known as asparagus is obtained. It is native to most of Europe, northern Africa and western Asia, and is now widely cultivated as a vegetable crop.
Asparagus has been used from early times as a vegetable and medicine, owing to its delicate flavour and diuretic properties. There is a recipe for cooking asparagus in the oldest surviving book of recipes, Apicius’s third century AD De re coquinaria, Book III. It was cultivated by the ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans, who ate it fresh when in season and dried the vegetable for use in winter. It lost its popularity in the Middle Ages but returned to favour in the seventeenth century.
Only the young shoots of asparagus are eaten. Asparagus is low in calories, contains no cholesterol and is healthy as it is very low in sodium. It is also a good source of vitamin B6, calcium, magnesium and zinc, and a very good source of dietary fiber, protein, vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin E, vitamin K, thiamin, riboflavin, rutin, niacin, folic acid, iron, phosphorus, potassium, copper, manganese and selenium. The amino acid asparagine gets its name from asparagus, the asparagus plant being rich in this compound.
The shoots are prepared and served in a number of ways around the world. In Asian-style cooking, asparagus is often stir-fried. Cantonese restaurants in the United States often serve asparagus stir-fried with chicken, shrimp, or beef, and also wrapped in bacon. Asparagus may also be quickly grilled over charcoal or hardwood embers. It is also used as an ingredient in some stews and soups. In the French style, it is often boiled or steamed and served with hollandaise sauce, melted butter or olive oil, Parmesan cheese or mayonnaise. It may even be used in a dessert. The best asparagus tends to be early growth (meaning first of the season) and is often simply steamed and served along with melted butter. Tall, narrow asparagus cooking pots allow the shoots to be steamed gently, their tips staying out of the water.
Asparagus can also be pickled and stored for several years. Some brands may label shoots prepared this way as "marinated."
The bottom portion of asparagus often contains sand and dirt and as such thorough cleaning is generally advised in cooking asparagus.
Green asparagus is eaten worldwide, though the availability of imports throughout the year has made it less of a delicacy than it once was. However, in the UK, due to the short growing season and demand for local produce, asparagus commands a premium and the "asparagus season is a highlight of the foodie calendar." In continental northern Europe, there is also a strong seasonal following for local white asparagus, nicknamed "white gold".
Since asparagus often originates in maritime habitats, it thrives in soils that are too saline for normal weeds to grow in. Thus a little salt was traditionally used to suppress weeds in beds intended for asparagus; this has the disadvantage that the soil cannot be used for anything else. Some places are better for growing asparagus than others. The fertility of the soil is a large factor. "Crowns" are planted in winter, and the first shoots appear in spring; the first pickings or "thinnings" are known as sprue asparagus. Sprue have thin stems.
White asparagus, known as spargel, is cultivated by denying the plants light while they are being grown. Less bitter than the green variety, it is very popular in the Netherlands, France, Belgium and Germany where 57,000 tonnes (61% of consumer demands) are produced annually.
Purple asparagus differs from its green and white counterparts, having high sugar and low fibre levels. Purple asparagus was originally developed in Italy and commercialised under the variety name Violetto d'Albenga. In northwestern Europe, the season for asparagus production is short, traditionally beginning on April 23 and ending on Midsummer Day.