Sweet spears of spring

How to grow and cook asparagus

click to enlarge Sweet spears of spring
PHOTO by Ashley Meyer
Elizabeth Meyer harvesting asparagus in her home garden.

Growing asparagus is an exercise in delayed gratification. Hungry gardeners must wait two to three years after planting asparagus before harvesting their first crop. Once established, however, a well-maintained asparagus patch will give generously for 30 years or more. It also forms tall attractive foliage during the summer and can serve as a screen or provide shade to heat sensitive crops like lettuce.

Asparagus should be planted in early spring, around the same time that one would plant potatoes, and in a similar manner. An asparagus patch can produce about a half pound of juicy stalks per foot during the six-to-eight-week harvest period. A good rule of thumb is to plant five to ten asparagus crowns, or little root bundles, per person. It is not recommended to start asparagus from seed. Choose a sunny site with good drainage and remove all weeds. Dig a trench 12-18 inches wide and about six to eight inches deep. Arrange the crowns 12-15 inches apart in the trench, then cover with good quality weed-free compost. As the spears begin to emerge over the coming weeks, cover them with a couple of inches of compost at a time so that eventually the trench is filled and slightly mounded over. Use cardboard and mulch on either side of the trench to suppress weeds and retain moisture.

Weed the bed as needed throughout the summer and don't cut the tall fern-like foliage until late winter after several hard freezes. Asparagus is a heavy feeder, so add a two-inch layer of compost very early in the season in late winter. After three years the patch is ready to be harvested. Harvest the spears when they are eight to twelve inches high and only for six to eight weeks. Use a sharp knife or simply snap them about two inches above the soil. After six weeks of harvest, let the spears grow and branch out, which allows the plant to build a strong root system that will support it for many years to come.

When preparing asparagus, I was always taught to snap off the fibery bottom of the spears. Recently I read a tip that advised peeling the bottom half of the spear with a vegetable peeler rather than snapping and discarding it. This works well and drastically reduces waste. Once it's washed and prepped, asparagus is at home in a wide array of dishes and styles of cuisine.

I always prefer to simply steam or lightly sauté those first sweet spears of spring because I'm simply enamored with their pure verdant flavor. Eventually though, asparagus will make its way onto the grill before being drizzled with punchy romesco sauce or sliced on a diagonal and tossed in a hot wok with spicy black bean sauce or layered into a savory tart with goat cheese and chives. Excess bounty can be pickled or frozen, but in truth each year we simply eat it all up.

Asparagus on Toast
This old-school preparation is indisputably delicious.

1 pound asparagus, trimmed, peeled and cut into one-inch pieces
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons flour
Salt and pepper
2 slices white sandwich bread, toasted and cut into cubes

Bring three cups of water to a boil in a medium saucepan. Have ready a bowl of ice water. Add a pinch of salt to the water, then add the asparagus. Stir lightly, then cover and boil for two minutes. Strain the asparagus, reserving the cooking liquid. Plunge the blanched asparagus into the ice water, then drain.

Add the butter to the now-empty pan that you used to blanch the asparagus, melting it over medium high heat. Whisk the flour into the foaming butter to make a roux, stirring until it is a pale golden color. Add the reserved asparagus cooking liquid and whisk until smooth. Continue to cook, stirring frequently, until the sauce has thickened and has reduced to about two cups. Add the drained asparagus to the sauce and bring up to temperature.

Arrange the toast cubes in the bottom of the serving dish. Pour the hot asparagus mixture over the toast and serve.

Asparagus pesto

1 pound asparagus, trimmed and cut into two-inch sections (don't worry about peeling it)
1 clove garlic
cup walnuts, toasted
¼- cup olive oil
¾ cup grated Parmesan or pecorino cheese
Salt and black pepper to taste
Zest and juice of one-half lemon

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Have a bowl of ice water ready. Boil the spears until they are just cooked through, about five minutes. Reserve about ¼ cup of the cooking liquid, then drain and plunge the asparagus pieces into the boiling water.

Place the garlic in the bowl of a food processor with a pinch of salt and process until finely chopped. Add the walnuts and finely chop them as well. Add the drained asparagus to the food processor along with the Parmesan, lemon juice, lemon zest and two tablespoons of the cooking liquid. Turn on the motor and slowly drizzle in the olive oil with the motor running. Add additional cooking liquid as needed to achieve the desired consistency. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Delicious on grilled bruschetta, tossed with pasta, dolloped on deviled eggs or spooned over pan-seared fish.

About The Author

Ashley Meyer

Ashley Meyer has been cooking as long as she has been walking. The daughter of beloved former Illinois Times food columnist, Julianne Glatz, Ashley offers a fresh, inspired take on her mother’s culinary legacy. Ashley studied winemaking at Lincoln University in Christchurch, New Zealand and recently achieved the...

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