Asparagus: Speedy spears

What you never knew about asparagus, plus a delcious recipe

Madison's 100+ inches of snow this year turned out to be good for at least one thing this spring-asparagus. The moisture, coupled with our cool spring temperatures, has created great growing conditions. Make the asparagus eating conditions great at your house, too, by sharing facts about this spear-shaped vegetable with your kids. For instance, the edible part of an asparagus plant is about 8 inches long. However, its roots extend down to 8 to 10 feet. That's where they suck up water and why lots of moisture is needed to help them grow. If the spears are not cut to eat, the little leaf-like nobs on the tips of asparagus stalks will grow into leaves and the stalks will grow up to 7 feet tall. With roots and stalks like that, this little edible is worthy of Jack and the Beanstalk-type fame.

Kids may also be fascinating by the fast growth rate of asparagus. As the days slowly get warmer, asparagus can grow as much as 10 inches in 24 hours. This keeps asparagus farmers very busy because the fields need to be picked almost daily. Dan Deneen from Black Earth Valley Farm in Mazomanie and a vendor at the farmers' market on the square says he'll pick his asparagus until about mid-June. After that, he lets his plants grow high to store nutrients for next year. In one week recently, Deneen's farm produced about 300 pounds of asparagus - about the weight of a baby elephant.

Asparagus is great steamed, roasted, sautéed or grilled. Add a little olive oil, lemon juice, and salt to any of those methods and kids just might clamor over it. If that doesn't do the trick, here's a dipping sauce to win them over.

Roasted Asparagus with Peanut Butter Dipping Sauce
Serves 4

1 pound of asparagus
1 Tbs. olive oil
1/2 cup peanut butter
1/2 cup hot water
2 Tbs. soy sauce
2 Tbs. sugar
1 tsp. cider vinegar
cayenne, to taste
salt, to taste (if peanut butter is unsalted)

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Trim each asparagus spear by snapping it with a hand at either end; the tough part will break off. Place the spears on a baking sheet. Drizzle with olive oil, sprinkle with salt, and mix gently. Roast the asparagus about 15 minutes or until asparagus are tender and beginning to brown. To make sauce, mix peanut butter and hot water in a small bowl with a spoon or a small whisk until uniformly mixed. Sir in remaining ingredients and mix well. Serve warm roasted asparagus spears with little pots of sauce for dipping.

Peanut Butter Dipping Sauce is adapted from Moosewood Cookbook by Mollie Katzen.

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