Article: Asparagus can be a quick, nutritious snack

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As the days get a bit longer, you might perform a master juggling act between baseball, softball and track practices, or just need extra time at night for an after dinner walk. “Go-to” veggies that pack a nutritional punch, are ready in a few minutes, and customizable for everyone’s taste preferences are key to getting out of the kitchen quickly and keeping us healthy!  Asparagus just happen to fit the bill perfectly and are now in season!

Shop Smart
Look for firm, untwisted asparagus, with closed tips that are not too damp/soft. Try to find a bunch with spears of similar thickness so they will take the same amount of time to cook. Green, white and purple varieties of asparagus are all more perishable than many other veggies like onions, potatoes, cauliflower and even lettuce, and will wrinkle &/or harden as they lose water. To maximize quality while in the refrigerator, wrap the cut ends with a damp paper towel or set in a vase with water and lightly drape with saran wrap and use the asparagus within a few days of purchasing it. After rinsing the asparagus under cold water, you can remove the skin on the fibrous ends of the larger pieces with a veggie peeler, or break them off. I taught my kids to find the lowest spot on the spears where they will naturally break and remove the stems there for perfectly tender bites. They get very excited about this job and it is even safe for very young kitchen helpers, as no knives or peelers are needed!

Cook Smart
Since asparagus is such a wonderful source of water soluble vitamins, you will want to avoid cooking it in a pot of water, as some of those vitamins will be left behind. Although that renders boiling off limits, quickly sautéing asparagus in a few tablespoons of veggie broth or cooking it “above water” works great! Steaming asparagus for just a few minutes will allow for the perfect crisp-tender bite and a rich green color, bringing out the best in the vegetable and will avoid turning these beauties into a pile of stringy mush.  When I am super short on time, I broil it. I line a baking sheet with foil, toss rinsed spears in a produce bag with a few pinches of salt, pepper and garlic powder, dump them on the baking sheet in a single layer and slide it under the broiler for 3-5 minutes (check to avoid over cooking).  The asparagus rarely even makes it to everyone’s plates, as my husband and kids huddle around the kitchen island and grab a few spears each as soon as they emerge from the oven. No preheating, minimal mess (toss the foil) and enjoyed by all!

Eat Smart
Asparagus is one of those amazing plant foods that is ridiculously low in calories, but a treasure-trove of phytonutrients, vitamins and minerals! You can enjoy 5 glorious stalks for only 20 measly calories while your cells are protected by antioxidants and nourished with bone-strengthening, energy-producing, muscle-building vitamins A (as beta-carotene), C, E, K, B1, B2, B3, B6, folate, copper, phosphorus, potassium, magnesium, iron, zinc, selenium, calcium, fiber and protein!  Asparagus is also one of the few natural food sources of inulin, which helps our digestive system function at its best, and is a rich source of rutin, which strengthens the walls of our smallest blood vessels. It provides several compounds called saponins, which reduce inflammation and can lower our risk of developing chronic diseases.

Steamed or broiled asparagus lends well to being “flavored” differently by each family member: one might cut the spears into bite-sized pieces and toss with the zest and juice from a lemon, another might dip their spears in spicy mustard, paint on a bit of pesto or add a splash of balsamic vinegar!  Lightly steamed asparagus can be chilled and later incorporated into a delicious whole grain pasta salad with sun-dried tomatoes, scallions, baby spinach and garbanzo beans. If you have been disappointed with asparagus in the past, you most likely had it overcooked or out of season.  Give it another try, as you just might be surprised by how wonderful it can be!

Treat asparagus like a bouquet of fresh cut flowers!

Treat asparagus like a bouquet of fresh cut flowers!

April is the definitely the month to celebrate asparagus in our local area, so take advantage of the Great Stockton Asparagus Dine Out (Apr 1-15) http://www.visitstockton.org/Dining/Asparagus-Dine-Out and don’t miss the Stockton Asparagus Festival (Apr 27-29) http://asparagusfest.com/

Timaree Hagenburger, is a registered dietitian and certified health fitness specialist with a master’s degree in public health. She is a nutrition professor at Cosumnes River College, does corporate wellness work, as well as professional speaking engagements and teaches hands-on cooking/nutrition classes.

View my article as published in the Lodi News Sentinel.

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