Looking for ways to get your kids to eat more vegetables? We took up the 52 New Foods Challenge to introduce one new fruit or vegetable a week to vary our children’s diet. Each month we share some ideas, tips and recipes to help you move beyond carrots and peas. This month, asparagus.
Sulphurous. That’s such an appealing word when it comes to food isn’t it? But there’s no escaping it: asparagus is firmly in the sulphurous flavour camp along with cabbage, swede and broccoli. What else do these vegetables have it common? They sit right at the top of many kids Most Hated Vegetable scorecards.
Asparagus, though, was the first is this much maligned assortment that I managed to get my son to really enjoy and I’ve found that it offered a fairly gentle gateway to some of the more challenging bitter vegetables.
Certainly, if your kids go for the food ‘make believe’ thing asparagus has a lot going for it – it can be trees, crayons or (if you squint a bit) rockets. Mine, sadly, has long moved beyond this and frowns at me while explaining – very slowly for the benefit of his imbecile mother – that we don’t eat crayons. Or rockets.
Although less is usually more when it comes to eating asparagus, plain steamed vegetables of any persuasion, even when drowned in butter, are unlikely to be welcomed on a first (or second) outing with cautious kids.
Mixing asparagus in with old favourites (stir fries, frittatas, pasta) can help sneak them in under the radar and get them used to the flavour. As a general rule of thumb, I found that substituting chopped asparagus where I would normally use peas in a dish usually worked quite well. And if all else fails, asparagus (like 99% of all foodstuffs) goes brilliantly with bacon.
Jump straight to recipe ideas or read on for our tips on buying and storing asparagus, and why it should be on your child’s plate.Buying: Buy British! (or local to wherever you are). That is not simply misplaced patriotism: asparagus, like peas and sweetcorn, deteriorates as soon as it is cut. Quite literally by the hour and turns its own sugar into starch. So, while we could debate for hours whether it is ethical and environmentally sound to eat Peruvian asparagus in November, happily we don’t have to. The simple answer is that the stuff that has had to fly to get here really won’t taste as good.
If you live anywhere near a farm that will let you pick your own, that’s an asparagus win. It’s a fun activity to do with your kids (or make your kids do while you watch – all that bending is a challenge for the over 35s) and it ensures you get the really fresh stuff.
If you are relegated to the supermarket (or farmers market if you are lucky) look out for brightly coloured stems with tightly closed spears – if the bits at the top (yes, that’s the technical term) are beginning to open it means they have been picked too late and are starting to bolt and will probably taste bitter. Check also that the ends aren’t too dry/woody and that the spear isn’t pliable – it should snap fairly easily. And have a good sniff too – it should smell of asparagus and nothing else.
Purple asparagus makes an appearance occasionally and tastes much the same as the green stuff – useful if your kids like quirky coloured vegetables (or are resolutely against anything green). There’s also the white asparagus that they go wild for over on the continent but I have never understood the fuss. It’s a bit slimy and tasteless if you ask me.Season: Now! And it’s a fairly short window too. British asparagus arrives in April and will have disappeared again by June, so get it while you can. The price actually drops a fair bit toward the end of the season (when the asparagus excitement subsides after a winter of root vegetables). Do keep an eye out though when buying: many UK supermarkets still stock a lot of Spanish and Italian asparagus in among the British stuff during our local season.
As mentioned, it’s really a vegetable to eat asap because it deteriorates so quickly. But if you (like me) get seduced by the Buy 3 for Probably Only a Tiny Saving But It Sounded Tempting offer at your local market, store it in the fridge for a day or two (max) like you would cut flowers – in a jar with some water in and a plastic bag loosely over the top.
Points: 15. A big scorer on the 52 New Foods chart, which is unsurprising given it’s brilliant nutrient profile: betacarotene, B vitamins, soluble fibre, potassium, rutin. Traditional Chinese medicine also believes asparagus to be very good for respiratory disorders. Roughly 5 spears makes up one adult ‘serving’ for your 5 a day quota so 2-3 spears is a good portion for kids. Preparation: To prepare, just snap off the woody tip (if you hold it in two hands it should snap at about the right place if you bend it) and you are good to go.
If doing battle with a skeptical small child try and go for the ‘regular’ medium thickness stems and don’t overcook them. Thicker stems have a stringy exterior – not a great child pleaser – and so should be peeled (who wants to do that?). Ditto overcooking: once any hint of crunch has gone they become bendy and chewy to eat.
The thinner ‘sprue’ type that is quite common now in supermarkets isn’t as tender and juicy as the normal sized spears but it’s good in stir fries and in omelettes/frittatas in particular as it doesn’t require blanching first.
Eggs are a great vehicle for getting kids to eat asparagus, and have the benefit of actually pairing very well flavour wise. Try using asparagus spears in place of soldiers with a soft boiled egg. Wrapping the asparagus first in proscuitto or parma ham is also very popular with small (and big) people.
If you want to go even further (but with very little effort) Hugh Fernley-Whittingstall does a very neat thing where he adds a little butter and vinegar to a soft boiled egg, creating a sort of cheat’s hollandaise to dip your asparagus into. Find the ‘recipe’ here.
Beyond boiled, asparagus is great stirred into scrambled eggs, or added to omelettes and frittatas like this one with those other spring favourites peas and broad beans from Jamie Oliver. If adding to scrambled eggs, blanch the spears for a few minutes and then just add to whatever fat you’re cooking your eggs in and sauté briefly before adding the eggs. Goats cheese is a great addition if your kids will go for it.
Asparagus pesto is easy to make and an excellent way to introduce it to pasta loving kids (although the pesto is good dolloped on grilled chicken, added to toast sandwiches or trickled onto a sweet potato too). This recipe from 101 Cookbook’s Heidi Swanson is delicious, sneaks some spinach in too and keeps well for up to a week if you stick it in a sealed jar with a layer of oil on top in the fridge.
As with any pesto recipe though, you should use the quantities as a guide and trust your instincts – particularly with the garlic, olive oil and parmesan as they vary so much in taste and strength.
I would suggest blitzing up the asparagus and spinach with one garlic clove and two thirds of the parmesan, taste and then build up from there. Remember too that it mellows slightly once you add the hot pasta.
Asparagus could be substituted for courgettes in this brilliant Theo Randall tagliatelle with regular pesto as well.
As mentioned above, cured pork is a fantastic match and pancetta-wrapped asparagus is a doodle to make, easy finger food to munch and always popular. If, like most small-person households, you have a handy bacon, pea and cream pasta recipe in your repertoire (this, from Gordon Ramsay, is mine), try substituting the peas (or adding to them) with some asparagus chopped into little coins. The flavours all work perfectly and it’s an already familiar dish.
If you make your own pizza at home, try adding asparagus to your child’s topping selection.
Stir-Fries and Risotto
Chopped into short lengths, asparagus can also be added to any vegetable stir-fries and is particularly good with prawns or sesame beef. When you have a bit more time on your hands, the River Cafe asparagus and herb risotto is really worth a try for a weekend lunch or dinner.
On It’s Own (Steamed, Roasted or BBQ)
If your kids don’t need too much coercion to try them, or you’re ready to move on to more simple preparations, steaming is the best way to cook from a nutritional perspective – simply serve with some sort of salty dairy (butter, hollandaise, parmesan). Despite many of our generation’s own hang-ups about saturated fat, it is actually considered beneficial to eat vegetables with some fat so that the vitamins can be dissolved and digested.
Chargrilled or barbecued asparagus is very child friendly too as the sugars caramelise balancing the bitterness. Roasting (uncovered) with a little oil gives a good charred, almost smoky finish if you don’t have a griddle or can’t be bothered to fire up the Weber on a Tuesday afternoon. Roasting in foil (15-20 minutes at 180C) is a good alternative to boiling.