Versatile and healthy asparagus

Asparagus has been cultivated for culinary and medicinal purposes for more than 2,000 years. Versatile and healthy, it can be eaten raw or cooked, and is used fresh, frozen, or canned. Asparagus is generally available from April through June. Asparagus can be used in salads, side dishes, entrées or as an appetizer, and can be boiled, steamed, microwaved, roasted, or stir-fried. Check out the following tips and information on buying, storing, and adding asparagus to a healthful eating plan.
    Nutrition and health. Five medium asparagus spears have about 20 calories. All asparagus spears are not the same size, but this can be used as a general estimate, reports Lisa Franzen-Castle, Nebraska Extension Nutrition Specialist. Asparagus has no saturated fat, sodium or cholesterol, is high in folate, and is a good source of vitamin A and C.
    Selection and storage. Choose odorless asparagus stalks with dry, tight tips that are similar in size. Avoid purchasing limp or wilted stalks. Refrigerate unwashed asparagus for up to four days by wrapping the end of stalks in a wet paper towel and placing in a plastic bag.
    Cleaning and preparing. Rinse asparagus stalks thoroughly in cool water before using. Bend asparagus so that it snaps at its natural breaking point. This will remove the woody bottom.
    Cooking methods. When boiling asparagus, cook it in a wide skillet, with about 1 inch of water. If desired, add about one teaspoon of salt to the water. Consider blanching when using asparagus in salads and cold dishes. To blanch place asparagus in boiling water for about three minutes, remove and immediately place in ice water. Put fresh asparagus in a plastic bag, drizzle with olive oil, pepper, and other seasonings, shake until coated, place asparagus in a single layer on a foil covered rimmed baking sheet and bake at 450 until crisp. Place fresh or frozen asparagus in a microwave-safe container or in a sauté pan with a small amount of water, low-sodium seasonings, and garlic for a side dish or snack. Purchase thick spears for grilling. Place asparagus spears on a medium-high heat grill coated with olive oil spray and cook for about 5 to 8 minutes until tender, turning occasionally.

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