Asparagus is a lean, green growing machine
Curves – I’m all for them, and fortunately so’s my better half. Calories, and their consequential contours, have been a natural part of my kitchen and my food life; I have reveled in that big, juicy steak, adorned with a nice rounded dollop of ketchup on the side. Heaven. But!…working with more vegetables over the last decade really has been a revelation, and the virtues of bringing asparagus into your repertoire, with its slender shape and distinctive flavor, can’t be overstated. To be honest, I think I was confused at first. I wasn’t accustomed to enjoying—-really enjoying—-the green on my plate, but this lean, green growing machine (asparagus) actually tasted good. I mean, really good. Perhaps it was partly the phallic novelty of the shape that got me interested in the first place (blush!). Come on, admit it; I can’t be the only one to have made the association…
I remember asparagus was exotic…in London…in the 90s…
My first encounter with cooking asparagus actually started off really badly. It was the early 1990’s when ‘al dente’ cooking was the new culinary cool, but I didn’t know it. I served droopy, overcooked spears (which had turned vaguely brown in the cooking) with a blob of butter to a bunch of equally naive London University students—and I was incredibly pleased with myself. Asparagus in London in the 90s – extravagant! Fortunately, with a little knowledge, I was able to raise my game in the kitchen, and I can encourage the home cook adventurer everwhere that a fleeting kiss of the pan is all this veggie royalty requires. Asparagus’ firm exterior combined with its soft, yielding interior will make a loyal asparagus-eater out of the most committed protein-dependent diners.
Food that’s fast and flavorful
Fast forward to 2015 and we find a growing, worldwide interest in food that is fast and healthy. With a constantly hungry brood and an endless professional to-do list, one of the hardest questions I face is “What’s for dinner, Mom?” This usually comes toward the end of a busy day and all I want to do is to get something quick, healthy and tasty on the table – and I’ll settle for any two of those three! Asparagus is about as versatile as any vegetable can be, the kids love it, and I can have it on the table in minutes. Done!
I can encourage the home cook adventurer everwhere that a fleeting kiss of the pan is all this veggie royalty requires.
Amazing Versatility: Asparagus can shine solo or married
But let’s be honest; some of the asparagus you will have encountered can really put you off if it’s been prepared badly. It’s a tender vegetable, with refreshing versatility, but it must be handled with respect for the preservation of its delicate form and flavor. So why do I care so much about this? I’m a mom, a home cook, a forq enthusiast, and a food writer—and I want to explore the range and versatility of asparagus on the family dinner table. I want to see this forq community stretch boundaries and challenge assumptions for all that the healthy component of daily our dinner plates can be, starting with asparagus: and not just in four star restaurants, but in your home, as part of your life, and as a new cornerstone, along with other rockstar veg, of your family’s diet. Those drooping, overcooked spears that came out of my student kitchen had really faded from my memory until I forcibly dragged them out of the 90’s and splashed them here online. So, staring down the memories of how so many of us tend to start off in the kitchen – with every good intention and piles of ruined vegetables — how do you cook asparagus? It’s a great question. It really does depend on whether you want to keep its flavor simple, singular and yet delicious, or married with subtlety and surprise. I like to select my asparagus spears and stems carefully, prepare accordingly, and cook…considerately.
Asparagus Adventure: PYO
I am a British export enjoying the cultivated, seasonal delights of California’s Central Valley. Like the mild seasons that drive food production here in Northern California, one of my fondest memories of England is being acutely aware of the miracle of seasonal shift. It’s a harmonious environmental response to changes in the climate that cause a clockwork shift in the local landscape and vegetation: growth, maturity and decline is nothing short of an annual phenomenon. I am a huge fan of local, seasonal food. Seeing the ‘Pick Your Own Asparagus’ (PYO) signs appear at the end of each winter in Surrey would always leave me warm and bathed in the comfortable knowledge that spring had most definitely arrived. My first trip to an asparagus farm, seeing the somewhat alien sight of those singular asparagus stems poking out of the bare earth and standing to attention in rows like soldiers left me totally delighted. After this experience, toward the end of April each year, I’d be one of the first at the farm entrance. Armed with my knife and a bag, I sliced through stems and harvested asparagus at what would signify the beginning of the food year. If you happen to live near an asparagus farm I encourage you to experience a harvest first hand—there’s something so local and essential about not only knowing where your food comes from, but knowing the food that grows in or near your community. It’s grounding.
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Seasonal before seasoning
It is the edible perennial ‘asparagus officinalis’ (thank you, Rome) variety that is grown commercially these days. This Latin mouthful is part of the lily family and has a tuberous lateral root system. It typically takes about three years for an asparagus to grow from seed to its first harvest and it needs a lot of space. This could explain asparagus’ comparatively higher price.
In late spring and at the peak of harvest, the crown or root system beneath the soil produces a tender 6-9 inch stem that looks like a pencil with a compact spear tip. The asparagus harvest lasts just 8 weeks, so there’s no time to wait around. If the stem is not harvested, the asparagus will continue to grow throughout summer. As it grows, the stem extends into a taller stalk with a bushy fern that is really no good for consumption. The season varies slightly from region to region with asparagus being ready for harvesting from late April to late June in England, and as early as February in California. Wherever you harvest asparagus, it is important to do so before the tip unfurls and the stems thicken. The larger and later harvested stems tend to taste more woody and are tougher than their younger equivalents. This is because the unfurling asparagus tip produces a substance called lignan that thickens the stem as it readies for the next stage. Do not, under any circumstances, eat the asparagus fern unless you have strong, chewy goat-like jaws.
Mastering your veg: Don’t do it lying down!
If you’re feeling adventurous and would like to harvest some locally-sourced asparagus, here’s a few tips:
Start by choosing a reasonably sharp serrated knife.
With the asparagus in one hand, gently dig the knife about 1-4 inches below the soil surface surrounding the stem.
Slice straight through, avoiding your fingertips. You should leave nothing behind, and please be careful not to damage the crown beneath the surface.
Personally, I find the whole asparagus harvesting experience almost surreal. Once you’ve sliced through an entire field, nothing remains, visually, except bare soil…and footprints. Your footprints. Well done. You are becoming part of the slow food revolution, and when you serve asparagus for dinner, you won’t only be proud of how well you cooked it, but you’ll have stories to share at dinner over exactly where your family’s food came from that evening. Better yet – you’re all toasting, because you shared the experience together.
Eggs with Asparagus, Mushrooms, and Garlic Scapes
This dish uses some of the true gems of the late spring and summer and combines them with farm fresh eggs for a dish you’ll want to make again and again.
Poached Asparagus with White Miso Beurre Blanc
This variation of the classic beurre blanc sauce pairs perfectly with quickly poached fresh asparagus.
Panzanella with Asparagus and Pecorino Romano
A twist on the traditional Tuscan version, this panzanella adds asparagus and pecorino romano to the wonderful combination of toasted bread and ripe tomato.
Millet with Asparagus, Mushrooms, and Goat CheeseThis healthy dish uses a wonderful but frequently forgotten ancient grain and pairs it with lightly sautéed asparagus and mushrooms, which are then finished with goat cheese.
Shaved Asparagus Salad with Sriracha-Lemon Vinaigrette and Pecorino RomanoThis cold salad is brightened by the tang of lemon and cheese and the hot, garlic flavor of Sriracha.
Beef & Asparagus Stir FryThis stir fry works really well if the asparagus and water chestnuts keep their crunch alongside the succulent beef strips.
Asparagus & Ricotta QuicheEmbrace pie crust making in this tasty asparagus quiche recipe where fresh flavors and cheesy creaminess dominate.
Asparagus in Hollandaise Sauce with Crusted SalmonCrack the ‘double emulsion’ method of making hollandaise with this surprisingly simple asparagus and salmon recipe.
Filet steak & peppered asparagus with sweet potatoGreen peppercorn and asparagus make a wonderful partnership in this indulgent steak recipe.
Thai Green Curry with Chicken & AsparagusTransform the mood in your kitchen with the fragrant aroma of Thai green curry and the fresh flavor of asparagus.
How to cook asparagus
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