Asparagus, like the robin, has long been a sign of springtime.
When farmers markets open this time of the year, the green spears are often the first varieties of produce ripe for consumption.
So if you went to opening day at the Lawrence Downtown Farmers Market on Saturday, you might have been a bit disappointed. The local asparagus, at least so far, has been ruined by the freeze.
"It's the first thing of the season, and people are usually out here wanting to come out here on a nice day and pick it themselves," says Karen Pendleton, co-owner of Pendleton's Country Market east of Lawrence. "But asparagus won't even take a frost. It ruins anything above ground. And it almost sends the message down to the root: 'You don't want to come up here.'"
Good news, though: Unlike some other produce, asparagus will make a rebound. Pendleton is expecting to pick asparagus in about a week.
"Our best guess is that it would be a week from (today)," Pendleton says. "It's one crop that local really makes a huge difference. So fortunately, asparagus will come back. It's not like it's all gone for the season."
That rebound is due, in part, to how quickly asparagus grows - as much as 10 inches a day, in perfect weather conditions.
Asparagus is packed full of vitamins A, C and E. It's also a good source of folate, a nutrient that is key for cell production and may help protect against heart disease, according to the American Dietetic Association.
Just a half-cup serving of asparagus delivers a third of the recommended daily intake of folate.
"Every nutrient is important, but folate delivers a lot of bang for the buck," says Cynthia Sass, an American Dietetic Association spokeswoman.
She adds that folate - which also is found in large quantities in fortified breakfast cereals, spinach, navy beans, orange juice and avocados - helps prevent birth defects.
Patricia Wells, author of the new book "Vegetable Harvest," says a simple braise brings out the mineral-rich, woodsy flavors of the asparagus, and the dish needs no further embellishment.
Green or purple asparagus would be the easiest options for that preparation. White asparagus, which is milder in flavor, also can be used. Most white asparagus should be peeled before cooking.
When shopping for asparagus, look for firm stalks with tight tips. Fresh asparagus should snap when bent. Though best eaten the day purchased, asparagus can be refrigerated, wrapped in a damp cloth inside a plastic bag, for three days.
Opinion is divided, but many people believe large stalks are sweeter and juicier than thin ones. White asparagus tends to be less flavorful. Purple asparagus will have a fruity flavor.
Peeling tough-skinned stalks with a vegetable peeler will help ensure that the tips and stalks cook at the same rate. And be sure to rinse all asparagus thoroughly before cooking to remove any lingering sand.
For an even simpler preparation, try microwaving a pound of asparagus with a few tablespoons of water in a covered glass dish for about 3 minutes, or until tender.
Pendleton says she prefers an even simpler approach with her asparagus.
"We're so busy this time off the year, we take our purple asparagus and eat it raw," she says. "It's sweeter than green. It tastes like fresh peas. We might heat it up on the grill a little and eat it with dressing."