A sure sign that spring is here is seeing stalks of fresh asparagus at the farmers market and labeled "locally grown" in grocery stores. True, this is a vegetable we can buy almost year-round, thanks to growers in Peru and Mexico, but none can hold a candle to what is grown locally and available now. They cost a bit more than other spring vegetables, but are worth every penny.
It's a short season, usually from early April through June, so you'll likely want to have them as often as you can.
The good news is that they're one of the easiest vegetables to prepare. They do well a number of ways — sauteed, steamed, roasted or grilled. The early asparagus are especially good when cooked like three minutes in salted water so they keep their crisp and tender crunch. This is definitely a case where less is better.
Best served simply as a side, they also are a great complement to all sorts of dishes — I'm thinking especially of pasta, risotto, soup, stir fry, casserole, scrambled eggs or an omelet. How about standing a stalk in a bloody mary as a garnish? I've even seen them deep-fried.
To peel the stalks or not after you snap the bottoms off? Cook's choice. They may look prettier, but it's a lot of work, especially if you're preparing several bunches.
The earliest to come out of the garden have fairly thin stalks, and as the season goes on, they become thicker. There is no difference in texture or flavor.
First-time asparagus growers must have an abundance of patience, lasting three or four years before the first harvest. After that, the asparagus are on their own, producing year after year.
In fact, Glen and Judy Mitchell, of Pine Island, have an asparagus bed that they planted over 45 years ago, and it is still going strong with most of the original roots.
"We might have had to replace a few over the years, but that's been rare," Judy said.
Once they first push up out of the ground, they grow quickly, even as much as 5 inches a day.
Over the season, you may see white asparagus, popular in Europe. These are grown under soil or sand to prevent them from producing chlorophyll. Considered a delicacy, the flavor is pretty much the same as their green counterparts. Since they've been under dirt or sand, you should peel these.
When you bring asparagus home, the best way to keep them at their peak is to store them in a container, standing upright, with a little water in the refrigerator. You can also wrap the ends in damp paper towels and place standing up in a plastic bag.
As is true with so many vegetables, these spring treats are a nutritional wonder, with generous amounts of fiber and a host of vitamins, including K, B9, A, C and E. I can't verify this, but old wives' tales suggest asparagus are a good anti-aging force and an aphrodisiac, as well as an effective treatment for a hangover. Whatever — fresh locally grown asparagus are a treat.
Oven Roasted Asparagus
1 bunch asparagus spears, trimmed
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese
1 clove garlic, minced (optional)
1 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Place asparagus in a mixing bowl, and drizzle with olive oil. Toss to coat the spears, then sprinkle with the cheese, garlic, salt and pepper. Arrange on a baking sheet in a single layer. Bake until just tender, 12-15 minutes, depending on thickness.
Rice With Asparagus
This is a Craig Claiborne recipe from the early 1950s. Still a great one.
1 bunch asparagus
1/2 cup dry white wine
1 cup uncooked rice
Salt and pepper
1/2 cup each grated Parmesan and Gruyere cheese, mixed
6 tablespoons butter
Cook the asparagus until barely tender in boiling salted water. Drain but save 1 cup of the cooking liquid. In a saucepan, cook the rice with the wine and saved water, seasoned with salt and pepper to taste. In a shallow buttered baking dish, layer the rice with the asparagus. Save the best-looking spears to go on top, sprinkle with cheeses, dot with butter, and broil until cheese has melted and top is browned. Alternatively, if you've made this ahead, heat it in a 350-degree oven for 20-30 minutes.
Cream of Asparagus Soup
Good hot or cold.
4 cups yellow onions, chopped
1 stick sweet butter
2 quarts chicken stock
1 1/2-2 pounds asparagus
1/2 cup cream (or half-and-half)
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Melt butter in a large pot, and simmer onions until very soft and golden, about 25 minutes. Stir often. Add stock, and bring to a boil. Trim tips from the asparagus, boil in separate water until barely tender (3 minutes), and put aside. Cut about an inch from ends of asparagus spears if they are woody. Cut stalks into 1/2-inch pieces and drop into the boiling stock. Cover, lower heat, and simmer for 45 minutes or until they are very soft.
Cool a few minutes off heat, then very carefully put a cup at a time in a blender or food processor. Press down on the lid so it doesn't fly off. Put puree back into the pot, add the reserved tips and cream, and gently warm the soup up. Add salt and pepper. Garnish with the tips if you haven't put them in with the puree or a dollop of sour cream. Serves about 8.
Post Bulletin food writer Holly Ebel knows what’s cookin’. Send comments or story tips to email@example.com.