Flash in the Pan 

Asparagus leek soup for mom

What is it about asparagus and Mother's Day? You always seem to find the green shoots in omelets served in bed and on Mother's Day brunch menus. Is there some symbolism at work here, or is the relationship merely a consequence of the fact that when Mother's Day rolls around, asparagus is one of the only vegetables in season?

Celebrating Mother's Day in the height of spring does make symbolic sense because by celebrating mothers we're celebrating fertility. Spring is such a brilliant display of fertility you'd think Goddess-worshipping pagans created Mother's Day, and not a woman named Anna Jarvis, who started the holiday in honor of her mom, whose birthday was in May.

There are some practical reasons why asparagus is good for mothers. If she's pregnant, she'll get a super dose of folic acid, a B vitamin important for preventing birth defects. Asparagus also contains the antioxidant glutathione, which is linked to cancer prevention, and is a good source of vitamin C, thiamin and vitamin B6. If mom ever gets a case of puffy ankles or swollen feet, bring out the asparagus. It's a diuretic, flushing the excess fluid from those uncomfortably enlarged tissues.

According to Miss Manners, asparagus is one of the few foods acceptable to eat with one's hands. This "asparagus exception" originated in a time when people ate with real silverware, which is susceptible to staining by asparagus enzymes. Back when silverware was mom's exclusive domain, you'd have done her a favor by using your fingers and not staining her silver. These days, finger foods give a deliciously informal feeling to a meal, encouraging mom to let her hair down and relax a little on Mother's Day.

My first glimpse at an asparagus patch in production was disappointing. After waiting all winter for something green to eat, a trip to an asparagus farm was rewarded with the sight of an empty brown field. But as my eyes scanned for something to focus on, I finally saw a shoot, then another, and then I was seeing them everywhere. They're hard to spot because as soon as they grow tall enough to see, they're harvested.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY ARI LEVAUX

If you want to grow asparagus in your garden, start by planting clumps of asparagus roots, called crowns, in well-drained soil. Plant them about 18 inches apart in trenches, and spread out the roots. When the first shoots appear, allow them to grow out into mature plants, which will feed the crowns and help them grow and spread. After two years of watching your asparagus grow up unharvested, you can start picking. During harvest season, the asparagus tips come up quickly. On a warm day they can grow 6 inches, but on cold spring days they'll put on mere fractions of an inch. After a five-week harvest it's best to allow the remaining stalks to grow up and feed the crowns.

Mature asparagus plants resemble overgrown ferns, reaching heights of 4 feet or more, with bright red (and poisonous) berries dangling like Christmas tree ornaments, and providing shade to napping dogs all summer long. Because the plants are so large it's best to plant them on the north and west sides of the garden, so they don't shade the other crops.

Late summer, when the plants are big and visible, is when stalkers of wild asparagus ply the creek bottoms in search of the grown plants. They mark the spots where the plants are found, and return the following spring for the shoots.

Mother's Day or not, asparagus is in season right now, and asparagus leek soup is a great way to enjoy it. I adapted the following recipe from one I found on epicurious.com. It's simple, foolproof and lends itself to making extra to freeze for later.

The ingredients for 1 pound of asparagus: 2 tablespoons of olive oil, 2 cups of chicken or veggie stock, and 1 cup chopped leeks (white and pale green parts only).

In addition, I highly recommend serving the soup with a lemon peel gremolata, made with the following: 2 teaspoons parsley, chopped; 4 teaspoons lemon peel, grated; 1 tablespoon fresh tarragon, chopped; and 1 garlic clove, minced.

The soup is best made the day before, and chilled. Preheat your oven to 350 degrees and prepare the spears as the oven heats. Use one hand to grasp the base (the cut end), and gently bend the spear with the other hand a couple of inches higher up the stalk. The spear will snap at the point where it begins to toughen, usually about an inch or so from the cut end. Discard the cut ends, as they will be woody. Cut the asparagus into 2-inch pieces.

Combine asparagus, leeks and oil in a large bowl and toss. Spread on a baking sheet or skillet, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and roast until asparagus pieces are soft and leeks are golden, stirring occasionally, about 45 minutes.

Remove from oven and allow to cool.

Spoon the vegetables into a blender, add 2 cups broth, and blend until smooth. Transfer to a pot. Chill, covered, until serving time.

Make the gremolata as follows, just before serving: Mix parsley, lemon peel, tarragon, and garlic in a small bowl.

To serve, reheat the soup, thinning with more stock if you wish, and ladle into bowls. Sprinkle with gremolata and serve. It can also be served chilled.

Even though it contains asparagus, this isn't exactly finger food. Miss Manners would probably slurp it from the bowl rather than stain a silver spoon. Mom should feel free to do the same.

Ask Ari: Aghast over agave nectar

Q: Dear Flash,

What is agave nectar? Is it better for you than sugar? My mom uses it in her coffee because she thinks it is, but it tastes like corn syrup to me.

—I Can't Believe It's Not Corn Syrup

A: There are two kinds of agave nectar: the ancient sweetener that's made by collecting agave sap and boiling it down into a sweet syrup, and the modern, commercially available sweetener that is what your mom is pouring into her coffee. The latter is made via a process that's disturbingly similar to the way high-fructose corn syrup is made.

While the labels on commercially available agave syrup often imply that said product is made the way Mexican desert Indians did it, it's unlikely that these noble ancients had the technology to hydrolyze the pulp of agave plants—hydrolyzing being the process by which oil is turned into margarine. Another stumbling block for the ancient hunter gatherers would have been coming up with a way to convert hydrolyzed inulin, a type of starch found in agave, into a syrup that's 70 percent fructose. By comparison, the high-fructose corn syrup in soft drinks is 55 percent fructose.

The process of converting hydrolyzed inulin to high-fructose agave syrup, aka agave nectar, involves treatment with caustic acids, clarifiers, filtration chemicals, and genetically modified enzymes.

I was just as surprised to hear this as you and your mom probably are, but you can read the patent for the process yourself at www.patentstorm.us/ patents/5846333/fulltext.html.

And for a full discussion on the startling similarities between high-fructose corn syrup and commercial grade agave nectar, check out this article commissioned by the Weston A. Price foundation: www.westonaprice.org/Agave-Nectar-Worse-Than-We-Thought.html.

While agave nectar is yet another misleading food fad, good old sugar looks better and better, especially the minimally processed kind, which is little more than evaporated cane juice. I have no problem with that.

Send your food and garden queries to flash@flashinthepan.net

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