Welcome Spring with Herbaceous Asparagus

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Image courtesy Ten Speed Press, a division of Random House, © 2011.

Reprinted with permission from The Feast Nearby: Essays & Recipesby Robin Mather, copyright © 2011. Published by Ten Speed Press, a division of Random House. The following excerpt can be found on Pages 30 to 33.

• Recipe: Pickled Asparagus with Lemon, Tarragon and Garlic

With such delight do we Michiganders greet the first asparagus of the season! It is among the earliest crops here in the Great Lakes region, and when asparagus arrives, we can be sure that it really is, truly is, spring. April’s fits and starts, clotty snows and mucky mud, can deter the belief that winter is over. But asparagus? Well, asparagus does not lie.

Old-time Michigan rural folks called asparagus “speary-grass,” a nickname that makes sense when you consider its growth habits. (In the same way, they called sumac, the shrubby nonpoisonous kind, “shoe-mac,” which also makes sense: its tannin-rich red berries can be used in leather tanning and dyeing.)

The grassy herbaciousness of asparagus was surely welcome after a long winter of mostly preserved vegetables, a kind of spring tonic that provided much-needed nutrients. Asparagus is high in folic acid and is a good source of potassium, fiber, vitamins A, B6, C, and thiamine. So perhaps that instinctive yearning for the fresh, tender spears is based on intuitive body knowledge.

My father was a true asparagus aficionado, although we didn’t eat it often when I was growing up. When I was about ten years old, my father used asparagus as part of an object lesson in reading a person’s character. He told the story of how, when he was a student at Lake Forest College outside Chicago and living in a fraternity house, fresh asparagus was on the menu one night. One of his fraternity brothers picked up the platter on the community table, smiled broadly, and said, “Oh, I love asparagus!” With that, he cut off all the tender tips and served them to himself, leaving only the decapitated stalks for the rest of the diners. “That guy,” my father said, still angry those many years later, “was a selfish prig. You can tell a lot about a person by the way he eats. He didn’t take a second to think about anyone else. Make sure you never do that.” At ten, I wasn’t clear about what, exactly, it was that I shouldn’t do: cut off all the tender asparagus tips or selfishly think only of myself. Later, of course, I figured it out. In my father’s name, I have never done the former, and work hard not to do the latter.

The loose, sandy soil of west Michigan’s Lake Michigan counties, especially Oceana County, makes ideal asparagus growing fields, and Michigan grows as much as twenty-five million pounds of asparagus each year, making us the third-largest asparagus growing state. Growers plant the spidery crowns a foot or so below the soil’s surface. A newly planted field usually can’t be harvested for the first three years, to give the crowns plenty of time to develop strong roots, but a carefully tended bed will provide a good harvest for as long as fifteen years. When the gods smile, asparagus can grow ten inches in a day, and the crowns will send up spears for about six weeks–six lovely, brief weeks.

Young beds provide big spears, the sturdy, thumb-thick spears that may need to have a little tough skin scraped away at their bottoms. Gourmands say the bigger the spear’s diameter, the better the asparagus–based, I think, on the ratio of tender flesh to crisper outer skin. But I actually prefer the thinner spears, as do many people, because I like that crisp texture. And though I admire Los Angeles Times food writer and editor Russ Parsons immensely, I disagree with him–politely, of course–about how to deal with those woody bottom ends. He says cut off the bottom inch or so; I say bend the spear until it breaks naturally, and sometimes you don’t even have to do that if the asparagus is extremely fresh. Here in Michigan, growers hand-snap the spears at harvest, rather than cutting them below the soil as growers do in other states, which means there’s less likely to be a woody part in the first place. Do whatever makes you happy.

Only about a quarter of the crop is sold fresh, to grocery stores, farm stands, and at roadside markets. Most of Michigan’s harvest used to be sold to processors, who froze more than a third as cuts and tips or spears, and canned the rest.

I learned some of the above from a fascinating documentary called Asparagus! Stalking the American Life, which filmmakers Kirsten Kelly and Ann de Mare released in 2006 after spending more than two years on the project. Although the documentary has won prize after prize and has aired on PBS, I’ve yet to meet anyone else who has seen it. When the federal government launched its ill-conceived War on Drugs program, persuading Peruvian farmers to grow asparagus instead of the coca that is turned into cocaine, Michigan growers couldn’t compete with the cheap imported stuff. It’s true that Peru’s harvest of coca dropped by 61 percent in the ten years after the trade program began. It’s also true, as the documentary points out, that coca production rose by 74 percent in neighboring Colombia, and Peruvian coca growing has resumed its steady rise. And when NAFTA opened the doors for corporations to move their manufacturing and processing plants into Mexico and South America, where labor is ruinously underpaid–who can live on twenty dollars a week in wages, even when the cost of living is low?–the companies that pack American asparagus flew south like vultures.

Fortunately, freezing or canning asparagus is simple.

To freeze whole asparagus spears, snap the spears, if needed. Bring a large, shallow pan of water to a boil over high heat and add the asparagus. Cook just until the color changes to bright green, perhaps two to three minutes. Then shock the spears by dropping them into a sink of cold water to stop the cooking. The asparagus is nowhere near cooked at this stage. What you just did is called “blanching,” and you do that to stop the enzyme activity in fruits and vegetables that would cause the quality to deteriorate, even while frozen.

When the asparagus has cooled, pat it dry with paper towels or cloth ones–I use my oldest kitchen towels for projects like this–then arrange the spears in a single layer on a baking sheet and freeze. Once they’re frozen solid, transfer them to a zip-top gallon-size bag and place in the freezer. Now you have individually frozen spears, ready to remove as needed throughout the rest of the year.

To cook that frozen asparagus, the best method is to microwave it, according to the Michigan Asparagus Commission. Place the frozen spears on a microwave-safe plate or shallow dish with the tips in the center. Add two tablespoons water and cover tightly. Microwave at 100 percent power for four to seven minutes, depending on the quantity cooked. Stir or rearrange the asparagus halfway through the cooking time.

Sometimes I don’t even bother to cook the frozen spears. I just thaw them by running them under warm water, then cut them into pieces to add to omelets, stir-fries, frittatas, sandwiches, soups, and other dishes.

I don’t can much asparagus, because I don’t make a lot of the casserole-type dishes for which canned asparagus seems best suited. Instead, I make a half-dozen or so jars of pickled asparagus, which requires some trimming so the stalks fit neatly into the jars. Whatever is trimmed goes into the food processor with some water for asparagus puree, which I freeze by the tablespoon, dolloped onto a waxed paper-lined baking sheet. After the dollops are frozen, I move them into a zip-top freezer bag. That puree, stirred into some hot pasta or made into soup, keeps the bright green flavor of asparagus fresh on my palate deep into winter. If, however, you’d like to can asparagus, you need a pressure canner. Like all low-acid foods, asparagus must be pressure-canned to remain safe.

Only in season and on feast days–Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter–do I treat asparagus as a vegetable side dish, usually by grilling or broiling it. The rest of the year, I treat it as an ingredient in some dish or another. Because its season is so short, and because my budget is so limited, I simply can’t buy enough to make it less than a luxury.

So each week during asparagus season, I buy three pounds of asparagus for about five dollars. I eat a little with dinner the night I buy it, and blanch the rest for the freezer after dinner. The next morning, as I’m drinking my coffee, I’ll pull that baking sheet out of the freezer and move the frozen spears to storage bags. When I have ten or twelve pounds in the freezer, I start making pickled asparagus and asparagus puree. Experience has taught me that ten pounds of asparagus will see me through the year, though I’ll be missing it and really ready for asparagus again when it comes into season the next year.

Learning to appreciate a fleeting pleasure for itself is part of life, I guess. I am working on cultivating my delight in a season’s riches without longing for them when they have passed. Like the seasons in my own life, they will march along, whether I am ready for their changing or not.

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