Asparagus: it makes your pee smell and is also delicious
Published: April 11, 2012
When I was in high school, I bought a book about the Baltimore accent from Louie’s Bookstore Café, a place I admittedly frequented less for the actual books and more because no one there ever carded me for alcohol. It’s killing me that I can’t remember the title, but this book featured some totally dead-on examples of our peculiar dialect, including the proper usages of “poh-lice” and “pleece” (the former being the plural, as in “call the poh-lice,” and the latter the singular, as in “pleece officer”), and Baltimorese for “stop,” which is “ho ho ho ho,” uttered not in the usual Santa-like way, but in a more rapid staccato, often with one’s finger pointing up (try it out and you’ll understand). And then there’s the one that’s most permanently burned into my brain: “Aspergrass makes yer pee smell funny.” It’s pretty much Pavlovian. Anytime I see asparagus, or the vegetable comes up in conversation, I have to try pretty hard to not say out loud, “Aspergrass makes yer pee smell funny.”
OK, so let’s get the funny-smelling pee thing out of the way right now. Yes, it’s real. The culprit is a compound that’s rather uncreatively named asparagusic acid, which is molecularly similar to skunk spray and can cause urine to smell weird. But not everyone produces this smell when they eat asparagus, and not everyone can detect the smell even if it is present. Reading that book was the first time I’d heard of any asparagus-related smelliness, despite having eaten the vegetable my entire life, so I guess I’m genetically spared from suffering aspergrass stank, whether as a producer or a detector or maybe neither. Sooo, yeah, moving on.
Regarding the purported Baltimore pronunciation, I’m not sure I’ve ever heard the term “aspergrass” in the wild, i.e., used as a natural part of speech. I have heard the term “spear grass,” which makes logical sense but alas is unrelated to the actual etymology, which has to do with springing forth, rather than the shape of the thing, since it’s one of the first vegetables that are ready for harvest in spring. If the internet is to be believed, “sparrow grass” and even “sparrow guts” are also variations. Again, never heard those personally.
It’s definitely not a grass. Rather it’s the immature stalk of a rhizome (underground stem), related to lilies and onions. Growing asparagus from seed is a major time investment, as it takes three years before you can harvest anything. Thus it’s more common to grow from “crowns,” which are already formed rhizomes capable of sending up harvestable stalks the first year. And according to an asparagus-growing friend, each crown produces many stalks of varying thickness. While some cultivars are generally thicker or thinner than others, stalk diameter is kind of a crap shoot, but she does report that the stalks tend to become thinner as the season comes to a close. This is interesting, because I’ve often read that thicker equals older when it comes to asparagus.
Which explains the apparent fixation many people have with very thin “pencil” asparagus. And why I’ve always preferred thicker asparagus. For one thing, it’s easier to prep—would you rather peel 40 super-skinny things or 15 easily manipulated thick things? And seriously, thicker asparagus tends to taste better. Or rather, has more taste. Think about it: At the very least, each bite of a thick stalk has more physical asparagusic matter than a needle-thin one, thus more flavor. Thicker specimens also have more wiggle room as far as overcooking. All green vegetables suck when overcooked, but I think asparagus is one of those vegetables that people are particularly paranoid about screwing up. As a result, thin spears are almost always undercooked, or barely cooked. Asparagus, when properly cooked, can attain a juicy, tender, almost meat-like texture, perhaps with a tiny hint of crunchy resistance at the front. I’ve found this texture, as well as flavor, to be enhanced by cooling after cooking.
Although I think texture is the predominant draw of asparagus, the flavor is singular too. The problem with asparagus is that, like corn, it loses its natural sugars extremely rapidly after harvest (which has to be done by hand, accounting for its relatively high price). Unlike corn, asparagus doesn’t have a lot of sugar to begin with, so picking the freshest stalks is key. Since diameter is unreliable, the only real visible clue is the tips. Tight tips, meaning the little buds on top are all still stuck together, mean fresher asparagus. Some people check the bases, but they don’t tell you much. As far as the differences between white, purple, and green asparagus, I’ve always preferred green. If there is any difference, it’s certainly not worth the premium you pay for white, which has been completely buried to prevent chlorophyll production, or purple, which is colored by reddish compounds called anthocyanins, which disappear when cooked to leave the chlorophyll of everyday green asparagus anyway.
Other than the typical steaming or boiling, I like to enhance any sugars present in asparagus by grilling, another reason to use thicker stalks, as the thinner ones suffer a very high “man down” rate by falling between the grates onto the coals. Roasting or broiling are generally fail methods, since the high moisture content requires too long to impart any decent browning before the spears are overcooked. I’m not classically trained, so I don’t possess that obsessive vegetable-prepping instinct that compels some cooks to peel each stalk from the tip down. Sometimes I’ll even cut very thick, somewhat conical stalks via peeling, but usually I will just line up the spears at the tip, use the “break” method on the shortest one, and cut the rest of them at that point. The “break” thing is where you find the natural point on the stalk where it goes from tender to woody by bending it until it breaks. Duh. But doing this to each stalk is time-consuming and results in a sloppy-looking bunch of asparagus. The trimmed ends have basically no use, since the woody part of asparagus is lignin—indigestible and will never become tender via cooking.
Despite the mild winter and early warm spring, the first couple of weeks of the downtown farmers market had only one vendor selling asparagus. But in the next couple of weeks, we should be hitting the asparagus money zone. Or at least those of us not lucky enough to have the homegrown stuff, which my friend has apparently been harvesting like crazy already, and insists is so delicious as to be an entirely different vegetable than store-bought. Nobody likes an asparagus braggart, Cynthia—enjoy your noisome wee wee.
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