Food of Kings

Tasty and nutritious, asparagus has moved from a spring treat to a year-round pleasure.

More than any other vegetable, asparagus marks the seasonal change from winter to spring. Its long, green, tender spears are a welcome change after winter’s root vegetables. King Louis XIV was so fond of asparagus that he had greenhouses built so he could enjoy the plant, a native of the eastern Mediterranean, year-round. This “food of kings” is now available year-round for all of us to enjoy.

Farmers Milton Agader (left) and Al Medrano have been growning asparagus in Waialua for only five years, but already have successful crops. photo: Monte Costa

California supplies Hawai‘i and more than two thirds of the nation with asparagus from late January to May; Mexico fills in the rest of the year, and we also get sporadic offerings from Peru and New Zealand. But this member of the lily family is grown right here on O‘ahu all year long. At Twin Bridge Farms in Waialua, 55 acres of former sugar fields are dedicated to asparagus. Milton Agader and Al Medrano took a chance at growing a crop that no one else had really tried in a tropical climate.

Asparagus likes sandy soil, and Twin Bridge Farm’s location alongside Hale‘iwa Harbor is no doubt a plus in its production. Asparagus also prefers sun, another factor that ensures a healthy crop. But there’s no cold period for the plant to go dormant, a step in the growing cycle just before the spears emerge from the ground. To produce the spears in Waialua, the lofty ferns above ground are mowed down and the thirsty fields are watered twice a day. Within a week, spears emerge.

It usually takes three years for asparagus plants to produce edible spears and five to eight years to peak in their 15- to 20-year lifetime. But Agader reports his plants seem to have peaked in three.

One of the best reasons to enjoy locally grown asparagus is its freshness. You can’t beat the crispness and sweetness of a just-harvested spear. Plus, the spears are cut at the surface, so the whole spear is edible. Compare that with imported spears, which are cut below the surface to include a white base that is generally woody. To keep asparagus fresh, cut the stem a bit, place the bundle upright in a glass or bowl of water, cover with plastic and refrigerate.

Classic cookbooks would have us steam asparagus and coat it with rich hollandaise sauce, a delicious way to enjoy it. But all of our concerns about fat have given way to more healthful preparations: raw and thinly sliced in salads, grilled with a coating of olive oil, blanched and topped with a fried egg and truffle oil, stir-fried with beef and black beans, or steamed and dressed in vinaigrette.

Some people feel a little shy about eating asparagus, because it can lead to a distinct odor in urine. It’s not harmful, and scientists believe that the effect is due to certain compounds in the asparagus. Asparagus is very nutritious, so it’s well worth eating. There are only five calories per spear, and it is loaded with folic acid, vitamin C, thiamin, potassium, glutathione (an antioxidant) and rutin (a bioflavonoid that is linked to healthy blood vessels).

In Hawai‘i, eating asparagus like a king is as simple as visiting Foodland, Star or Daiei markets or the Saturday Farmers’ Market at Kapi‘olani Community College.