Monday, April 27, 2009

Asparagus: Fresh and fleeting

A guest post from award-winning poet, essayist, and radio presenter, Molly Fisk. Molly gardens in Nevada City, California. Her beguiling radio essays are broadcast on KVMR-FM and collected on two CDs, Using Your Turn Signal Promotes World Peace and Blow-Drying a Chicken.


In spring a young man’s fancy turns to love, as the saying goes, but quite a few of the rest of us turn toward asparagus. Despite the evidence in your grocery store, it’s ripe only during a one-month window in spring. You’ll know that month has arrived when the price suddenly plummets.

Martha Stewart recommends snapping the ends off where they naturally snap, vowing that this is the tastiest part of the stalk. But she has 400 asparagus beds tended to I’m sure by Japanese master gardeners. The hoi polloi, which is another name for rabble, i.e. us, will often just cut off the last inch or so and not waste so much, figuring a little toughness is par for the course, in asparagus as in life.

I’ve done some longitudinal studies of asparagus-lifespan in my ice box. They generally last a week. Any longer and the stalks get floppy, the heads with their little cedar-shingle-like design begin to slime up. Martha Stewart, however, and Alice Waters and others in the know insist we eat asparagus as soon as it’s picked, and this time, I agree with them. Again, it’s hard on the hoi polloi to search out the nearest asparagus farm and buy directly. For some reason, we’re usually at work. But you can make a phone call to discover when your grocery gets its delivery, arrange to shop that day and eat the little darlings that night, and you’re getting closer — if you live in an asparagus-producing state, those stalks were probably picked no more than two days before.

The novelist Barbara Kingsolver and her family spent a year eating what they could grow themselves or what was made nearby. Her entertaining account is called Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. Luckily she’d put in asparagus beds three years before, so they were producing — you don’t get any in the first couple of seasons. She said about eating in season that you start out delighted at your first taste, enjoy it for a week or two, and then start to wish you could eat something else. But you can’t. The beans and tomatoes are nowhere near ripe — you’re stuck with asparagus. Then suddenly it’s gone, you’ve eaten your last bite until next April, unless you’re going to buy those expensive ones from Chile that were bred for long distance travel, not flavor, and ruin your carbon footprint.

The big trend in gardening this spring is growing vegetables. We saw the White House lawn torn up for the purpose — backyards across the country are being roto-tilled as we speak. Nurseries are selling out of starts (the seedlings some people plant instead of actual seeds) — it’s a phenomenon, an intersection of the natural foods movement and the recession. This year I’m splitting my loyalties between an organic farm I support and a young friend just starting up on an acre she’s rented.

Don’t I sound knowledgeable about all this? In fact, I was raised a city girl in San Francisco — somewhere in the back of my brain I still don’t believe plants really come from seeds. But everyone says they do.

16 comments:

Grace Peterson said...

Hi DP~ I've been "harvesting" asparagus for a few weeks now. I'm not much of a vegetable gardener but asparagus has always intrigued me so a few years ago I planted two year old roots. This is the bumper year. I like breaking off spears and eating them right then and there. They crunch and have a nice, if not unique flavor. Nice article.

Rob (ourfrenchgarden) said...

I can and do gorge on asparagus. Grill them on the barbie, poach them or with pasta, a 1001 ways. I love 'em.

Daffodil Planter said...

Grace, An asparagus bed of one's own. Now that's living!

Rob, And it all tastes better in France, right?

SusanGardenChick said...

I'm one of the wasteful ones - I always snap, than a little trim on the diagonal to keep them looking elegant, even when it's just for me. I saw Julia Child make asparagus on TV eons ago and still prefer her method: Bring the water in a large shallow saucepan to a simmer, add the asaparagus and cook until asparagus bends slightly when lifted out with tongs. For medium think stalks (the best size!) this is about 3 minutes.

And now I'm craving asparagus! Good thing it is already on the dinner menu tonight, or I would be compelled to race to the nearest Safeway and purchase an imported bunch, regardless of whether it's been stomped allover on with carbon footprints.

Catherine said...

For a magical couple of years I lived on the coast of Maine. The field over from mine had old apple trees and if you looked at the horizon of the field there were slender stalks of asparagus poking up here and there in the grass. I would gather them, some just thicker than grass and steam them. The plants grew under the trees by no accident. Their seeds were dropped by the birds that rested on the branches above. I never did plant any myself but loved the foraging.

Heather said...

This stuff grows on ditch banks all over Idaho. I buy it at a semi-local produce stand and can usually get it the morning it is picked. I plan to can way more this year while my personal asparagus bed continues to grow a few more years. Soon, very soon, I will have my own.'

Tessa at Blunders with shoots, blossoms 'n roots said...

An asparagus bed is something I have yet to add to my garden- and with a possible move, it won't happen any time soon! I love asparagus! I always forget though when I need to push a tinkle that there is nothing wrong with me! I've just been eating asparagus!

Daffodil Planter said...

SusanGardenChick, Hey, it's not wasteful if you're composting the snapped ends. That's my story and I'm sticking to it. Carbon footprints and stomping--have we wandered into the wine section at Safeway?

Catherine, What lovely images of the apple orchard in Maine. Thank you!

Heather, Wild asparagus is the best reason yet to move to Idaho.

Tessa, Um, thanks for sharing? I agree that an asparagus bed is a worthy life goal!

Janet said...

Fresh locally grown ANYTHING is so much better! Would love to have homegrown asparagus.

Daffodil Planter said...

Janet, I hope a year or two down the road you will have time to tuck some asparagus into a South Carolina bed at your new property!

Pomona Belvedere said...

I love the bird-planted asparagus story. It must have been wonderful. It's true, asparagus is one of those fresh-grown treats that taste like spring. Those of you who have enough to get tired of it - you can always share ;)

Daffodil Planter said...

Pomona, Thank you for visiting today--a show of Nevada County sisterhood for Molly. Catherine's apple orchard, birds, and asparagus story is charming, isn't it?

Genevieve said...

Oh dear - I snap the ends off and compost them too - or I try to, but my kitty Kernal, who likes to play fetch, finds them in the compost and brings in all the asparagus ends and drops them at our feet with a great maiow, like hey, fetch time now! They're like his favorite toy. Good thing I spend the big bucks on all those mousies from the pet store, right? (rolls eyes)

So, yeah, asparagus time means finding chewed-up ends under the bed for a month after!

flowergardengirl said...

I cooked it once and it was tough--now I let the restaurant do it for me.

I worked at the garden center this weekend and can agree on the rush for vegetables. It was very interesting.

Daffodil Planter said...

Genevieve, So, you have a vegetarian cat who prefers asparagus ends to mice? Maybe namin him Kernal sent the wrong message ;-)

Flowergardengirl, My dear, you've just got to try again. GardenChick has a recipe above. My technique is to rinse, snap, and steam for about 8 minutes for a medium width stalk--if it is easily pierced with a fork it is ready to eat. I am The World's Laziest Cook, so if I can do it....

Anonymous said...

Our asparagus just started and last week I picked a big box full. Yummmy. We eat them as we pick them, marinate them in a soy sauce dressing, or my favorite; lay them on a cookie sheet, drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with lemon pepper, broil for a few minutes and yummmy!!!

We snap the ends off too, and put them in the compost, so we don't feel we are wasting them.

Su from Zoey Farms in Shingle Springs