Asparagus is a good source of potassium, Vitamin B6, Vitamins A and C, thiamin, and especially folacin. Folacin is necessary for red blood cell formation and growth, the prevention of liver disease, and most recently, in the prevention of neural tube defects, such as spinal bifida. A serving size (approximately 8 spears) is only 22 calories!

The season for asparagus is usually from February to July. The first crops are picked in California in February with the peak months being April and May. In the Midwest and East, the growing season extends from May through July. After harvesting, asparagus deteriorates rapidly unless it is kept cold. In stores, therefore, asparagus should either be refrigerated or displayed on trays with the stalks standing in several inches of cold water. When you are buying asparagus, look for firm, fresh spears with closed, compact tips. Stalks should stand straight, be green for the most of the length, and have a nicely rounded shape. Flat or twisted stalks are often tough and stringy. To test for freshness, try bending the spear. If it bends very little before snapping it is fresh. Purchase uniform diameter asparagus so that all spears will cook at the same rate.

When deciding on quantity, remember that asparagus loses about half of its total weight once it’s been trimmed and cooked. For a main dish, buy at least a pound for two people and as a side dish, a pound serves three to four.

After purchasing fresh asparagus, trim the spear stems about one-fourth inch. Wrap a moist paper towel around them, completely covering the ends. Put the wrapped spears in a paper bag and then store them in the crisper drawer of the refrigerator. For best quality, use within three days.

Fresh asparagus can be cooked many different ways. IN a saucepan, steamer, or frying pan, simply put one pound of spears or two-inch pieces in ½ cup of boiling water. Cover and allow it to cook for 5 to 8 minutes, or until it is crisp tender. It can also be cooked easily in a microwave oven. Place one pound in a non-metallic baking dish or serving bowl. If cooking whole spears, arrange with tips to the center. Add ¼ cup water and cover tightly. Microwave on high (100% power) for 4 to 7 minutes for spears, and 3 to 5 minutes for pieces. Stir or turn halfway through the cooking time.

Asparagus can be served with a simple light seasoning such as lemon juice, mustard sauce, herbs such as dill or savor, a topping of crumbled hard-cooked egg whites, or a sprinkling of toasted bread crumbs or Parmesan cheese. Another appetizing variation is to cut the spears into shorter lengths, and after cooking combine them with pasta or with vegetables such as cauliflower, mushrooms, or peas. Cold asparagus can also be served with a light vinaigrette or added to a tossed salad. Any leftover asparagus can be used as the basic for low-fat cream of asparagus soup.