If you were a 19th-century Frenchman, you would likely be served three courses of asparagus during your prenuptial dinner. The vegetable with the suggestive shape, writes Helen Yoest in "Plants with Benefits," was thought to stir amorous feeling.

Little did the French know then, confides Yoest, the author of a book on aphrodisiac plants, but asparagus is rich in folic acid, which boosts histamine production — which helps on wedding nights.


The benefits of asparagus, she writes, "seem to be in that gray area between actual aphrodisiac effects and the power of suggestion."

Whatever asparagus suggests about sex, it certainly heralds spring.

One of the very first gifts from the garden, its spears begin to emerge as soon as the ground temperature reaches 50 degrees. During the following six weeks or so, as spring progresses, asparagus can grow so fast that it can require cutting twice a day on some farms.

Once a high-priced darling in the produce section (and an unappetizing soggy mess in a can), asparagus from Peru and Mexico is plentiful all year round. But nothing compares to the asparagus at the farmers' market during the brief window in spring that opens at the end of April.

"I just love it," said Cindy Wolf, executive chef at Baltimore's Charleston restaurant. "It has such an unusual flavor. You can't compare anything to it. Even the way it grows is kind of amazing."

Wolf grew up picking and eating asparagus from her grandmother's garden, where the same plants likely produced for 15 to 20 years.

"We would boil it and saute it with a little bit of butter and salt," she recalled.

But when her mother, who was also a cook, prepared a canape with asparagus and blue cheese, "we thought it was so fancy."

Today, chefs and home cooks alike cook this versatile vegetable with confidence and invention. You can boil it, steam it, stir-fry it, roast it, saute it, serve it cold with a vinaigrette or pureed in a soup. There are even recipes for asparagus desserts.

It loves the salt of ham and pork and the tartness of lemon and the sweetness of strawberries. Sadly, the only thing it doesn't love is wine. It is so difficult to pair, said Wolf's business partner and wine expert Tony Foreman, "because it is always the strongest element."

If diners at Charleston are lucky this spring, Wolf will recreate an asparagus and caviar appetizer she savored at Paris' elegant La Tour D' Argent restaurant. "Decadently wonderful," is how she described it.

That's not how many of us might describe our asparagus memories. For years, its reputation suffered because of its canned version, which emerged as a strong-smelling, stringy mush.

"And I think it was lost in the commercial farming shuffle," said Timothy Dyson, executive chef of Bluegrass in South Baltimore. It is a labor-intensive crop that requires perfect timing and high-speed transportation to market.

The United States used to grow so much asparagus it had enough to export. Today, fewer farms are dedicating acreage to the crop, and the country is importing more and more. Cheap labor south of the border also provides tough competition for California farms.


But in Maryland, the sandy soil of the Eastern Shore provides the perfect medium for growing asparagus.

"Now we are close to local farmers and we can taste real asparagus, with all its freshness and flavor," said Dyson. Asparagus benefits from our new fascination with farm-to-table and also with the movement to eat seasonally, he said.

Dyson likes to marry asparagus with a salty cheese and a poached egg for brunch or wrapped in lardo, which is fatback cured with rosemary and spices, as an appetizer.

Baltimore's seemingly endless winter has chefs, foodies and home cooks itching for asparagus, the vegetable garden's version of a robin.

"I am so done with root vegetables," said Dyson.

Wolf is ready for spring's asparagus, too. "We will celebrate asparagus for three weeks," she said. "But when it is done, it is done. I won't serve it again."

Until next spring, of course.


Fresh white asparagus with whole grain mustard and chive beurre blanc and Vermont goat cheese

Serves 2

3/4 cup white wine

2 bay leaves

10 peppercorns

3 shallots, sliced lengthwise

6 ounces of butter

1/4 tablespoon whole grain mustard

1 tablespoon chives, chopped fine

Crumbled goat cheese


16 spears of white asparagus

Remove woody ends of asparagus and peel the stocks. Cook asparagus in boiling water to which sugar and lemon juice have been added for 3 to 5 minutes or until tender. (If blanching cooked asparagus, be sure to add salt to boiling water.)

Combine wine, bay leaves, peppercorns and shallots and cook over medium heat until almost dry. Add butter, whisking constantly. Strain the beurre blanc carefully. Stir in mustard and chives. Keep warm but away from high heat to avoid separation.

Arrange eight spears per person, drizzle with mustard sauce, dress with crumbled goat cheese and 3 or 4 tiny leaves of watercress.

Serve immediately.

Tony Foreman recommends pairing it with Bordeaux Blanc, Chateau Ferrande (Graves) 2012

Recipe courtesy of Cindy Wolf, executive chef and co-owner, Charleston

Roasted green asparagus with pork medallions

Serves 4

2 pounds green asparagus

Olive oil

3 tablespoons white balsamic vinegar

1 tablespoon sugar

2 pounds pork tenderloin

9 ounces cherry tomatoes

Salt and white pepper

Parmesan shavings

Peel the lower third of the asparagus and remove the tough ends

Heat the oil in a pan and fry half of the asparagus until just cooked. Remove the asparagus and keep it warm. Fry the remaining asparagus and add it to the first portion.

Season the asparagus with salt and pepper. Pour the oil out of the pan, but do not rinse. Stir vinegar and sugar into the pan until the sugar is dissolved, then drizzle over the asparagus. Keep warm.

Cut the pork into 1-inch slices. Season with salt and pepper and fry in the same pan for 4 minutes per side.

Add the cherry tomatoes to the pork and cover the pan. Cook over low heat for 5 minutes until the tomatoes are warm. Arrange the pork and tomatoes with the asparagus on a plate and scatter with Parmesan shavings.

Adapted from "Asparagus: The Best Recipes," Sabine Vonderstein, editor.

Grilled asparagus on sourdough toast, herbed chevre and sauce gribiche

1 bunch asparagus trimmed and washed

Neutral oil such as canola or sunflower to coat asparagus

1 loaf crusty sourdough

3 tablespoons room-temperature butter



4 hard-cooked eggs, peeled and minced

3 tablespoons good quality or homemade mayonnaise

2 teaspoons Dijon mustard

1 tablespoon minced shallot (or sweet onion)

Salt to taste

Herbed chevre:

6 ounces of good goat cheese

2 tablespoons minced marjoram

1 tablespoon minced thyme

1 teaspoon fresh cracked black pepper

2 tablespoons diced sour pickle

2 teaspoons vinegar

salt to taste (some goat cheeses have a higher salt content)

Let the goat cheese get to room temperature and mix the marjoram, thyme, black pepper, and salt.

Mix the minced egg with diced sour pickle, mustard, mayonnaise, shallot, vinegar, and salt.

Slice the sourdough into inch-thick pieces and spread with the room temperature butter.

Toss asparagus with oil and season with salt. Place on a heated grill. The thickness of the asparagus will determine the cooking time. Thinner asparagus will cook more quickly.

Place buttered bread on grill; be careful not to burn.

To assemble, smear grilled bread with the herbed chevre, top with the asparagus, and finish with generous amounts of sauce gribiche.

Recipe courtesy of Timothy Dyson, executive chef, Bluegrass

Asparagus tips

Below is some advice about asparagus culled from various gardening and culinary resources, including chef Cindy Wolf.

Growing it

Skip seeds. Growing asparagus from seed is difficult. Better to plant crowns of an all-male variety such as Jersey Knight or Jersey Giant. (Female varieties don't produce as well because they use their energy to produce seeds.) Plant the crowns 18 to 24 inches apart to get fatter spears, which are, oddly, more tender.

Pay attention to soil. Asparagus grows best in sandy soils. The beds require lots of compost, heavy mulching and constant weeding. Bed preparation is important because this crop stays in one place for 15 to 20 years.

Take your time. Growing asparagus requires patience. You should not harvest the stems until the third year, and then take only a few of them. Any spear you harvest will not develop into foliage, and it is the foliage that feeds the roots. From the third year on, you can harvest the stems for the full five to seven weeks.

Admire the colors. There is a variety of purple asparagus but, interestingly, it turns green when cooked. Green asparagus can be harvested as white asparagus if the stems are kept covered with mulch or soil to prevent sunlight from initiating the chlorophyll. Purple is sweeter than green, but white is the sweetest of them all.

Let them grow. Asparagus flavor changes in the heat of summer and, in any case, the spears need to grow into ferns to capture energy for the next growing season. After about six weeks, let them grow out. The feathery fronts make for an interesting combination border.

Preparing it

Choose spears with closed, compact tips and uniform diameter so they will cook evenly. Larger spears are more tender.

Cut the woody ends off each stem, about 1/2 to 1 inch. And use a vegetable peeler to remove the fibrous outer layer.

Green asparagus should be cooked in heavily salted water. White asparagus should be cooked in water to which lemon juice and a couple of spoonfuls of sugar have been added.

To store asparagus, wrap the stems in a wet paper towel and then place them in a plastic storage bag. Or you can store the stems in a large glass or other container, ends down in water, as if they were a bouquet of flowers. However, asparagus will only stay fresh for a couple of days.

Do not cover when cooking and do not overcook or the asparagus will lose its bright green color. Most home cooks make the mistake of cooking asparagus too long. Shock it in ice water to stop the cooking process.

Steam or boil asparagus for three to five minutes and serve with clarified butter, salt and pepper. That is a popular and easy way to prepare this vegetable. But increasingly, home cooks are choosing to toss it with olive oil, and perhaps some lemon juice, and salt and pepper and roast it uncovered in a 450-degree oven for 10 to 12 minutes.