Asparagus is one of the most nutritionally well-balanced vegetables there is. It leads nearly all produce items in the wide array of nutrients it supplies in significant amounts for a healthy diet.

I'm proud to be a Michigander, because my state ranks third in the nation for Asparagus production producing up to 25 million pounds annually; 25% of the harvest is sold as fresh asparagus in the vegetable section of the grocery store or at a roadside markets.

Here are some fun facts about this tasty vegetable:

* Asparagus is a member of the Lily family.

* Records show that asparagus is one of the earliest vegetables humans ever cultivated. It is thought to have been first by the Macedonians in approximately 200 B.C., and appears in Egyptian tomb drawings as early as 4000 BC. The ancient Greeks and Romans used it for medicinal purposes.

* Asparagus spears grow from a crown that is planted about a foot deep in sandy soils.

* An asparagus planting is usually not harvested for the first 3 years after the crowns are planted allowing the crown to develop a strong fibrous root system.

* A well-cared for asparagus planting will generally produce for about 15 years without being replanted.

* The larger the diameter, the better the quality! (Although slender shoots can be more tender.)

Grow your own

With a little effort you can establish your own asparagus bed. t is a hardy perennial which will grow in USDA zones 3-8. It prefers well drained sandy soil with a neutral pH in the 6.5-7.5 range. f you can't find crowns locally check out PlantScout for mail order sources.

Asparagus should be planted as soon as the ground can be worked in the spring. One-year-old crowns or plants are preferred. Seeds are sown in a production bed and allowed to grow for a year. The young plants have compact buds in the center (crown), with numerous dangling, pencil-sized roots.

Some FAQs, Courtesy of the Michigan Asparagus Advisory Board

How long do I boil asparagus?
Trim stem ends slightly and cook fresh asparagus for 5 to 8 minutes in boiling water for a crisp and tender result.

Can asparagus be peeled?
Asparagus does not have to be peeled but some people prefer it that way. Use a potato or vegetable peeler to peel the skin from the stalk, especially towards the base.

Can asparagus be eaten raw?
Although most people prefer asparagus cooked in some way, it is perfectly safe to eat asparagus raw. Just rinse it well in warm water to remove any sand and serve cold with a dip.

How do I pick the best asparagus?
Look for firm, fresh, spears with closed, compact tips and uniform diameter, so that all spears will cook in the same amount of time. Larger diameter spears are tenderer.

How should asparagus be frozen?
Wash asparagus thoroughly. Trim stem ends slightly. Leave spears whole or cut into 2-inch lengths. Blanch in boiling water for 1 to 2 minutes ONLY. Cool IMMEDIATELY in ice water. DRAIN WELL and pack in plastic freezer bags or containers leaving no excess air space. Seal, label and freeze at 0 degrees F. Use within eight months for best quality. Do not defrost before cooking. he blanching process may also be done in the microwave. To do this, place the asparagus in a microwavable dish. Add two tablespoons of water per pound. Cook at full power for 1 to 2 minutes, or until bright green and still crisp. After blanching, cool immediately in ice water. Drain well and pack in plastic freezer bags or containers, leaving no excess air space. Seal, label and freeze at 0° F. Use within 8 months for best quality. Do not defrost before cooking. If asparagus becomes defrosted, cook immediately. Do not re-freeze.

How long does asparagus have to grow before it can be cultivated?
Three seasons pass before the asparagus plant can be harvested. In its first season of growth, a crown forms with six inches of root. In the second season, the crown grows into a fern. Asparagus can be harvested in its third year, and reaches its prime after 6-8 years, when it can yield as much as one to two tons per acre when grown commercially.

Asparagus Recipes

Bacon-Wrapped Asparagus

1 pound fresh asparagus
8 to 10 strips bacon
Wash and trim asparagus spears. Cut bacon strips in half crosswise. Wrap one-half strip bacon around each asparagus spear, leaving tip and end exposed. Lay on a cookie sheet with sides. Bake in a preheated 400-degree oven for 20 to 25 minutes, or until bacon is cooked. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Makes 16 to 20 spears

Emeril Lagasse's Asparagus Soup

3 pounds fresh asparagus, rinsed
8 cups chicken stock
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 cup minced shallots
1 cup minced leeks, whites only, well rinsed
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground white pepper
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/4 cup finely grated Parmesan, garnish

Trim the attractive top tips from the asparagus, about 1 to 1 1/2 inches in length. Cut the woody stem ends from each spear and reserve. Cut the remaining tender stalks into 1/2-inch pieces.
In a medium pot, bring the stock to a boil. Add the tough woody stems, lower the heat and simmer to infuse with asparagus flavor, 20 to 30 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon and discard, reserving the stock.
Add the decorative tips to the stock and blanch until tender, 1 to 1 1/2 minutes. Remove with a strainer and refresh in an ice water bath. Drain on paper towels and reserve for the garnish. Reserve the stock.
In a medium stockpot, melt the butter over medium-high heat. When foamy, add the shallots and leeks and cook until tender, about 3 minutes. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add the chopped asparagus stalks, salt, and pepper, and cook, stirring, for 2 minutes. Add the reserved broth and simmer until the asparagus are very tender, 15 to 20 minutes. Remove from the heat.
With a hand-immersion blender or in batches in a food processor, puree the soup until smooth. Adjust the seasoning, to taste. If serving right away, return to medium heat and add the cream and reserved asparagus tips. Cook, stirring, until the soup is warmed through, about 3 minutes.
Alternatively, if serving the soup later do not add the cream and let cool at room temperature (or in an ice water bath). Cover and refrigerate. Before serving, add the cream and asparagus tips, and warm the soup gently over medium heat, stirring occasionally. Ladle the soup in a soup tureen and sprinkle with cheese. Ladle into demitasse cups or small coffee or tea cups, and serve.

Recipe courtesy of The Food Network
Asparagus Salad with Honey Oranges and Carrot Ribbons
SERVES 4 courtesy of Food Network

Asparagus Salad with Honey Oranges and Carrot Ribbons

1 bunch of asparagus (15 to 20 spears), peeled
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon honey
Juice of 1 lemon
Pinch of salt
1/8 teaspoon hot red pepper flakes
4 carrots, peeled
4 honey oranges (substitute tangerines or mandarin oranges), peeled and segmented
1/4 cup of red onion, sliced paper thin
1/2 cup fresh mint leaves
Arugula or spinach (optional)
Toppings: goat cheese, toasted pine nuts (or toasted pumpkin seeds)PREPARATION METHOD:
After peeling the asparagus of their woody fibers, cut into bite-size sections. Pan fry in 1 T olive oil until slightly wilted. Reserve.In a large salad bowl, combine honey, lemon juice, salt, and hot red pepper flakes. Place asparagus pieces into the dressing. Peel the meaty parts of the carrots into long ribbons and place into the dressing, as well. Cut the top and bottom off of the honey oranges and peel the rind with a sharp knife. Cut between each membrane to loosen sections. After you segment each orange, squeeze remaining orange juice from each membrane into the bowl. Place the oranges along with the onion slices into the dressing. Tear mint leaves over the salad and toss. Salt to taste. Serve over salad greens and add toppings.Recipe and Photo Courtesy of Kim Byer
The Paper Apron - a Food BlogWhether you prefer your asparagus raw, steamed, roasted or pureed, fresh or frozen, be sure to try some asparagus this month. It is one of the best and tastiest ways to welcome spring!

Image courtesy of PlantFiles