Asparagus is a member of the lily family of which there are more than a hundred species. The best known species is garden asparagus, which is now grown in most temperate and subtropical regions of the world.
Wild asparagus was known to the early Greeks and to this day it grows on the Mediterranean coast. As a cultivated plant, asparagus was known in the second century B.C. and was highly prized as a vegetable by the Romans. But in the West extensive cultivation of the plant did not begin until the sixteenth century.
Although there are a number of varie-ties of asparagus, the best known for culinary purposes are French asparagus, especially the white Argenteuil asparagus and Lauris, grown in the Vaucluse district in the South of France, English asparagus, which is a thin, green variety, Italian or Genoa asparagus, which is purplish in colour, and white Belgian asparagus.
To prepare asparagus, peel or scrape the stalks with a sharp knife. At the butt end, the asparagus may be peeled as much as -fe of an inch. But the peeling should gradually become very thin to-wards the tip. Wash them carefully. Make bundles of no more than 10 stalks, tie the bundles in 2 places and cut the ends off the stalks evenly.
To cook asparagus, bring about 4 inches of salted water to the boil in a deep pan. Stand the bundle of asparagus in the pan so that the stalks are in the water and the tips are out of it. Cover partially, leaving space for the steam to escape, and cook for 15 to 20 minutes.
There are special asparagus pans on the market which are deep and narrow and have holes in the lid. If you do not have a special asparagus pan, you can use a glass jar. Fill the jar with boiling water and stand the asparagus in it. Place the jar in a pan with boiling water and cook for 30 minutes. When the asparagus is cooked, take out the bundle carefully, drain and cut the strings.
To serve asparagus, pile the hot, cooked stalks on a plate lined with a folded napkin. Estimate 6 stalks per person. Serve with melted butter or with a Hollandaise sauce. Cold asparagus is delicious served with a vinaigrette sauce.
Asparagus may be served alone as a first course. It also makes an excellent vegetable accompaniment to meat, fish and chicken dishes. It may also be served cold in place of a salad.