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BLUE SPRINGS, Mo. - Asparagus is one of those vegetables that people either love or hate. "If you haven't tried asparagus in a while, you may want to reconsider because asparagus is loaded with healthy nutrients," said a University of Missouri Extension nutrition and health education specialist.

Asparagus is a good source of folate (folic acid), a powerful nutrient that helps prevent birth defects and heart disease, said Susan Mills-Gray. Asparagus also contains vitamins A, B and C, as well as iron.

"Known as a natural remedy, asparagus can help relieve indigestion and act as a mild laxative and sedative," she said. "The only caution for this vegetable is that if you are prone to kidney stones or gout, limit your consumption because it contains purines."

When choosing asparagus, look for firm, narrow, green spears with tight, crisp tips. (Very large stalks tend to come from older plants and can be tough, although they are still edible.) Tips should be deep green or purple in color. Avoid wilted, flat or twisted stalks as they may be tough or stringy. Choose uniform spears for even cooking; prepare about a half-pound per person.

The best way to store asparagus is to stand the cut end of the vegetable in an inch of water, or wrap the ends in a damp paper towel and refrigerate. To trim asparagus before cooking, hold the spear in both hands and bend until it snaps. The stalk breaks at the spot where it begins to turn woody. If the ends are hard and cracked, cut them away. Asparagus is grown in sandy soil, so wash it carefully to remove any grit before cooking.

Asparagus is usually boiled or steamed, but it can be grilled or roasted for a different, slightly nutty flavor. There is a special asparagus pan (useful but unnecessary) that allows the spears to stand upright in boiling water while the steam gently cooks the more delicate tips. You can also submerge spears in a large pan of boiling water; cover and cook anywhere from three to six minutes, depending on the size and freshness of the spears. Steaming takes a few minutes longer than boiling.

When done, a sharp knife should glide easily through the stalks. Drain carefully so as not to damage the tips. The spears should have a slight resistance when eaten but not be too crunchy.

Asparagus comes from the lily family, as do onions, leeks and garlic. "In the U.S., the most popular variety of asparagus is green, but in many other parts of the world people favor the white variety," Mills-Gray said. "The only difference between the two varieties is that white asparagus has been kept covered from the sun. Asparagus needs to be exposed to the sun in order to turn green."

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