BY SUMMER STAIR

Vegetables for many people often fall into one of two categories: Love or hate. But no matter what one thinks of them, they are an important element in anyone’s diet, often naturally providing healthy vitamins and minerals to the body.

One such spring vegetable, a flowering perennial plant, asparagus, is no different. The green, lanky spears that make up asparagus are both succulent and tender and have been considered a delicacy since ancient times, as well as a natural “cleansing” and healing vegetable.

Kelly Leonard, MS RD, of Healthful-Lifestyle.com, says that all fruits and vegetables, not just asparagus, cleanse the body. “Since they provide fiber, which helps eliminate by products by bulking up the stool, and antioxidants, which help rid the body of damaging molecules called “free radicals” by neutralizing them,” she says.

Other health benefits of asparagus noted by Leonard include that the spring vegetable provides the body with Vitamin C and folate. It is also a great source of Vitamin A and K and it is a prebiotic, which Leonard says is a food preferred by the good bacteria or proboitics that live in our gut system. Asparagus is also non-fat and only has 27 calories in 1 cup, Leonard says.

Asparagus is fresh in the springtime and can be found at its best throughout the month of May. Leonard says this is the best time to buy it, because it will be at its peak in taste and flavor but also at its highest nutrient value. Leonard notes that one of the drawbacks for many when consuming a “green” vegetable is that the flavor can sometimes be bitter, which is in fact caused by the photochemicals and nutrients within the vegetable. “Some people’s taste buds are more sensitive to these chemicals, and have a hard time camouflaging them,” Leonard says. “But you need to eat it, because it is so good for you.”

Leonard’s suggestion: Include asparagus in a recipe with other ingredients, to help reduce the bitter taste. “As with any veggie people disliked as a kid it may take several attempts with new recipes to find an acceptable way to include more veggies,” Leonard says. But the key is to keep trying until you find what works for you. Add a sprinkle of cheese or dip it in ranch. The important part is getting it into your diet to optimize health.

“The important message with fruits and veggies is including a variety of different colors, because each color signifies a different set of nutrients,” Leonard says.

Here are some simple ways to cook with asparagus and enjoy its many benefits.

As a Side Dish: Saute asparagus in olive oil with fresh garlic and dill. Top with a squeeze of fresh lemon. Be careful not to overcook the vegetable, you want it to still have a snap when you bite into it. You will know the vegetable is done, because it will become a darker green while cooking.

For Breakfast: Cook it up with some eggs. Add a slice of whole wheat toast for a complete, well-balanced meal.

Grill It: Wash it, wrap it up with scallions, drizzle olive oil on it, add a little salt and pepper to taste and you’re good to go.

Make it a Meal (camouflage it): Add it into any casserole or soup that you make. Or include it as a pizza topping. The options are endless.