Thursday, May 26, 2016

Recipe for Asparagus Success

When you eat with the seasons, you often have a long wait to feast on your favorite local fruits and veggies. But I’m convinced waiting to eat produce until it's in season in your area is totally worth it.

Take asparagus. You can get it any old time of the year, grown outside the U.S. The spears are generally super-skinny, a little desiccated, and the rubber-banded bundle is often sitting in a puddle of gray water. And you’ll pay dearly for the privilege of eating it out of season.

How about the local stuff? My area co-ops have been stocking organic, locally grown asparagus for the last month. Prices start around 5 bucks a pound, and I’ve seen it as high as $7.99! When you factor in the inedible bottom 1/3 of the spear that you snap off, the real cost is even higher. I could never bring myself to pay that kind of money, no matter how wonderful it tastes. What’s an asparagus lover to do?

The answer is grow your own. All you need is a decent sized space, maybe 12 x 10 feet…and lots of patience. Here at Berryridge Farm, John and I planted our first row of ten asparagus crowns eight years ago, and three more rows in subsequent years. The crowns can fool you—they’re sort of pale, brownish, dried up looking things that you plant in trench around a foot deep. You’ve got to wonder, how will they push up beautiful green spears?

The amazing thing is, they do. Here’s where the patience comes in: the first year the tips show up, it’s hands off—you’ve got to give your crowns time to develop a strong root system. The second spring, you can harvest a spear here or there, and give yourself the merest taste. But you still need to give the plants an opportunity to build up their strength. But Year 3, It’s Showtime! When the spears emerge in mid-spring, and get around 6-8 inches tall you can start cutting.

I use a cheapo, skinny serrated knife—a colleague of John’s who picked asparagus as a farm kid says you insert the knife into the soil at a diagonal, cutting an inch or two under the surface. The slant helps keep you from nicking any other spears that are still underground. In hot weather, the spears can grow several inches a day! Your harvest lasts about 8 weeks, and when the spears get pencil-thin you quit.

If during harvest-time, you leave over a warm weekend, or otherwise neglect to harvest your spears, you’ll return to the bed and find some have gotten 14+ inches high! Well, my friend, you’ll have to let them go. The good news is, the ones you didn’t cut will keep building up the crown’s roots for next year. As the days and weeks go by, the spears will get 5 feet high or taller, and flower—a big draw for our bees. The plants are often so tall you’ve got to stake them or otherwise string a rope around your bed to keep them from getting blown over. Keep your bed well-watered, and well mulched, and you can count on fat, yummy spears for up to 15 years.

So easy! Still, mistakes, as they say, were made. My biggest one was letting the weeds in the bed have the upper hand. For several summers, I let them get 1-2 feet high, thereby siphoning water and nutrients away from the asparagus plants. Which is bad enough, but all those weeds gave our resident voles plenty of cover. They managed to destroy about 12 crowns total, but what we have remaining supplies us with enough asparagus for two people to feast on at least five nights a week.

I’ve seen lots of exotic asparagus recipes, mixed with gorgeous, nutritious ingredients like cooked farro and goat cheese, and I’m sure they’re all fabulous…But since John and I often wait for dinner until 9 pm, after we come in from working outside, we keep things simple. Stir-fry some trimmed spears cut into two inch pieces with some olive oil and a couple of cloves of garlic, and it’s a tasty side—some sliced carrots will add sweetness. If you’re too hungry to wait, you can microwave your asparagus with a bit of water for 2-3 minutes on high, and add a dab of butter and a sprinkling of salt. When I have more time, I roast the spears whole, with a drizzle of olive oil, salt and pepper. A couple of cloves of garlic make them sublime.

The beauty of organic asparagus from your own garden, and picked just hours before eating is this: it’s so delish, simple preparations allow the full flavor to shine through. Questions about cultivating asparagus, or do you have some growing tips? I’d love to hear from you!