By most accounts asparagus originated in the eastern Mediterranean, northern Africa and western Asia. It is depicted in an Egyptian frieze dating back to 3000 BC (some reports claim that Queen Nefertiti considered it “the food of the Gods”). Ancient Greeks gathered wild asparagus (the word asparagus comes from the Greek language and means “sprout” or “shoot”), and believed the vegetable had pharmaceutical value. Hippocrates, the ancient Greek doctor, used it to treat diarrhea, and it was considered an effective aphrodisiac. The Romans were the first to cultivate asparagus. Reports indicate that the Romans went so far as to freeze asparagus in the Alps for out of season consumption and that Emperor Augustus was sufficiently fond of the vegetable that he had an “asparagus fleet” at the ready to fetch it to his table. A recipe for asparagus appears in the oldest surviving cookbook, De re coquinaria, Book III, written in the third century AD by Apicus.
During the Middle Ages, after the Roman Empire fell, interest in asparagus waned as well. By 1469, asparagus was cultivated in French monasteries. In the 17th century, King Louis XIV ordered special greenhouses built to grow asparagus year round and asparagus tips, called points d’amour, or ‘love tips’, by the French, were a delicacy to Madame de Pompadour, mistress to Louis XV. By the 18th century asparagus was not grown solely for the nobility and became more widely available. It arrived in America with Dutch and English colonists.
Asparagus comes in various widths, from jumbo to pencil thin. For roasting, the fatter the better (and the fatter they are the longer it will take to roast them). Wash the asparagus under cold tap water, grasp the asparagus by the bottom end of the woody stalk with your fingertips, and bend it. Fresh asparagus will snap off at the point where the stalk becomes inedibly tough (usually an inch or so from the bottom end). Discard the bottom ends of the stalks. Some people peel the rest of the stalks (not, of course, the tips) with a vegetable peeler to assure total tenderness, but that is not absolutely necessary if the asparagus is to be roasted.
Position a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat the oven to 450*. Wash and trim the asparagus, brush it with olive oil and sprinkle it with salt. Spread it out on a jelly roll pan and roast the it, shaking the pan every 2 minutes or so, until the spears are just tender when pierced with the tip of a knife. The timing will depend on the thickness of the asparagus, but 8 to 10 minutes is usual. Transfer the asparagus to a platter with tongs and serve. Asparagus can be roasted 2 hours ahead and left to stand at room temperature. If desired, rewarm the asparagus in a 450* oven for 5 minutes, or serve it at room temperature.
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