Asparagus, Swiss Chard, Arugula and Beets!
“Velocius quam asparagi conquantur!”
Shouted by Roman Emperor Caesar Augustus to his troops, it translates to “faster than cooking asparagus.” Essentially, “get moving already!”
Augustus loved asparagus so much that he organized an elite military unit called “the asparagus fleet” tasked with procuring it for him throughout his empire. He even had his fastest chariots and runners carry the fresh picked spears high into the Alps to freeze for later use.
Asparagus is the chosen, locally grown ingredient for the May 7 Nature of Exchange dinner at Tilda’s Kitchen. It’s a member of the lily family and comes from the Greek word for “shoot” or “sprout”. Thought to have originated in the Eastern Mediterranean region, it has been prized for its medicinal and aphrodisiacal qualities for over 2000 years. It thrives in sandy, salty soils (try to say that three times fast!) and grows from a “crown” of thick roots. Once established, asparagus can be harvested for over 15 years. But it is essential that the first three years mature without harvesting in order to feed the deeply planted roots with energy synthesized from the sun. By the third year’s growth, the stalks are pencil-sized and grow thicker and thicker each year after. With the right conditions of sun and rain, asparagus can grow 10 inches in 24 hours so it must be harvested daily.
Swiss chard, the focus of Friday’s, May 14 meal, is a green leafy vegetable that is packed with nutrients. It contains an impressive amount of fiber, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants that your body needs. Consuming a diet containing leafy greens has been shown to lower heart disease risk factors, such as inflammation, high cholesterol and high blood pressure. Swiss chard is an excellent source of potassium, calcium and magnesium, minerals that help maintain healthy blood pressure.
Although its name may lead you to believe it originated in Switzerland, Swiss chard is native to the Mediterranean. There are many types of Swiss chard, some of which have colorful, jewel-toned stalks and veins, making this vegetable particularly pleasing to the eye. The colors range from red to yellow, pink, orange, fuschia, and white.
Rocket or arugula, the subject of the May 21 dinner, is an edible annual plant in the family Brassicaceae. Used as a leaf vegetable for its fresh, tart, bitter, and peppery flavor it is a pungent, leafy green vegetable resembling a longer-leaved and open lettuce, Eruca vesicaria is rich in vitamin C and potassium. In addition to the leaves, the flowers, young seed pods, and mature seeds are all edible. Grown as an edible and popular herb in Italy since Roman times, it was mentioned by various ancient Roman classical authors as an aphrodisiac.
May 28 celebrates the beetroot. It is the taproot portion of a beet plant, usually known in the US as beets while the vegetable is referred to as beetroot in British English. It is one of several cultivated varieties of Beta vulgaris grown for their edible taproots and leaves (called beet greens).
Besides being used as a food, red beets have uses as a food coloring and as a medicinal plant. Many beet products are made from other Beta vulgaris varieties, particularly sugar beet.
Red beets are native to the Mediterranean and Atlantic coasts of Europe and North Africa and have been growing wild since ancient times. Initially, the plant was cultivated for its leafy green tops, and the roots were often discarded or used as animal feed. Primary consumption of the root itself did not take place until the 1500s. The discovery of the beet’s high sugar content also led to its increased agricultural value, and subsequently the root spread throughout the world via immigration and trade.
Red beets vary in size, typically averaging three to seven centimeters in diameter, and have a globular to ovate shape with a small taproot extending from the non-stem end. The firm skin is dark red to purple and is semi-smooth with tiny root hairs, russet, and scrapes covering the surface. Each beet varies in texture and shape depending on growing conditions. Underneath the surface, the flesh is a deep crimson and is dense, aqueous, and crunchy, mildly sweet with an earthy flavor. The beet plant also grows leafy stalks that are edible and have a taste similar to swiss chard.
Red beets, botanically classified as Beta vulgaris, are edible, underground roots that sprout tall leaves and are members of the Amaranthaceae family. The term red beet is a broad descriptor used to encompass many different varieties of beets, including one of the most popular red cultivars known as the Detroit Red. Red beets are cultivated primarily as a table root, used in everyday cooking in both sweet and savory preparations.