Produce report September 17: Fruit and vege buys of the week
Most (but maybe not all) of us love asparagus although everyone has to love what it represents — glorious spring, and increased choice in the produce aisle. These delicate spears have arrived in the supermarket where they will stay until January, waiting to be charred on the barbie, lightly blanched for salads, roasted in the oven, rolled individually in a crustless slice of buttered bread or dipped into hollandaise (make that a boiled egg if you are being healthy). Versatility all round.
"Most of our asparagus hails from Waikato, Horowhenua or Canterbury," New World fresh food expert Phil Lemon says. "And there are around 39 growers in New Zealand producing around 1500 tonnes annually.”
Asparagus needs to be bought fresh and used promptly. Once cut, it deteriorates quickly as the spears lose their sweetness, flavour and tenderness. “Fresh asparagus sounds squeaky when rubbed. If it does not squeak, it is not fresh,” Phil adds. “To keep it fresher for longer, store it in the vege bin in your fridge with the ends wrapped in a damp paper towel." Alternatively, stand the spears in a jar of water in the fridge (trim a little of the cut end away first). Change the water when it becomes cloudy. Asparagus lasts for up to a week that way.
It is up to you whether you choose thick or thin spears, but commit to one size at a time to make cooking easier. Thin are sweeter and quicker to cook and thick have a more pronounced asparagus flavour.
Fat ones are also better barbecued (thick ends towards the heat, spears coated with olive oil and sprinkled with salt). Asparagus is an absolute star stir-fried — cook only a minute or two so it retains its sweet crunch.
To blanch asparagus, tie it into bundles and drop it into boiling water for a few minutes, then plunge them into icy water if you want them cold. Otherwise, steam over water for about three minutes.
Try asparagus roasted — brushed with oil and seasoned and cooked in a hot oven on a tray for about 10 minutes. Squeeze over a little lemon juice and grated parmesan if you wish. Or serve raw with a simple dressing.
To prep, simply snap the spears off where they break and discard the coarse ends. Or for a more economical option, cut the lower woody part off 2cm from the base, then lightly peel the skin, stopping about 3cm from the tip. The snapped-off ends can be added to a stock but it will be distinctively “asparagus” — that’s not a bad thing if you want to use it for an asparagus and pea risotto or an asparagus soup, for instance.
For modern nostalgia, try these prosciutto and fresh asparagus cheese rolls.
If you don’t have access to fresh spears yet, try the canned ones for these baked asparagus and cheese rolls which are a take on Southland cheese rolls.
For these recipes and more, see our asparagus collection.
Asparagus is rich in B vitamins and vitamins A, C, E and K. It includes iron, calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, zinc, selenium and potassium. It’s one of the best natural sources of folate and is a good source of fibre. Folate can be depleted by alcohol consumption, so eat it up if your social life is looking a little too good. Asparagus is also a diuretic. Like chicory root and artichoke, it contains a type of carbohydrate called inulin, a prebiotic. Unlike most other carbohydrates, inulin passes straight through to the large intestine where it ferments, helping to support healthy gut flora. Its sulphurous compounds are broken down by the digestive system and this causes the distinctive smell in your urine.
Try this: Herb butter for hot asparagus
Mix together 150g soft unsalted butter, some flaky sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, lemon zest, and lots of chopped chervil or parsley. Warren Elwin
And even more good news on the produce front, local courgettes are now in supermarkets. It’s the usual story, newness equals expense, but there’s a long season and cheap buying ahead. The main season runs from October to April. New baby courgettes are delicately flavoured, perfect for salads. Look for shiny, smooth ones and use promptly.
Eggplants, cos lettuces, spinach and telegraph cucumbers are well priced. (See Delaney Mes' salad below.) Look for juicy tangerines in New World. Technically belonging to a mandarin subgroup, they are full of flavour and are great for adding a citrus hit to cakes and desserts, as well as eating raw, of course. Tangerines that have been crossed with grapefruit are called tangelos and we are still awaiting their arrival. Our fruit buys of the week (you guessed it) are lemons and navel oranges. Grapefruit are affordable too.
This is a great side dish for any Chinese food feast — it's especially good as a side with dumplings. Smashing the cucumber (rather than slicing it) helps soak up more flavour.