by Sara Hunter, Produce Department
Spring is an exciting time. As I write this in April, it seems the excitement will go on and on since we started so early. Robins are back, chirping and hopping about in lawns. Each day continues to get noticeably longer and flowers have poked their heads out (in April?!) and begun blooming. Some of my favorite flowers are spring-loving daffodils, tulips, and of course lilacs. But there is one member of the lily family, the asparagus, which is just starting to emerge from its wintery slumber, and I have been patiently awaiting its arrival.
Asparagus is said to have been first cultivated roughly 2,500 years ago in Greece, where the name asparagus means “shoot” or “spear” in Greek. Asparagus is one of the oldest cultivated vegetables. This plant’s spears grow from a crown that is planted about a foot deep in the ground. Three seasons must pass before an asparagus plant can be harvested because this allows the crown to grow a strong and stable root system. The asparagus plant grows best in sandy, well-drained soil, and has a relatively short growing season – usually lasting only six to seven weeks. Under perfect conditions, the spear can grow up to 10 inches in an amazingly short twenty-four hour period. Once harvest season is complete, the spears will grow into ferns, providing the roots with the nutrients needed until the next growing season.
Most people do not have their own personal asparagus bed. The Co-op is here to help. We are fortunate to have three local suppliers of this high-demand, short-season vegetable: Erik Sessions of Patchwork Green Farm, David and Perry-O Sliwa of Sliwa Meadow Farm and GROWN Locally. We also keep organic asparagus on-hand from California (and conventional asparagus from Mexico) to fill in when there isn’t enough local asparagus to go around.
When choosing asparagus, there are some things to consider. Many people are under the impression that the thinner the spear, the tenderer it is. Others claim to love the fat juicy stalks for their succulence. Both can be true, although I myself have had more experience with the skinny spear being tougher than the thick. It is most important that, no matter how thin or thick the spears, they should be fresh. The sugars in the plant convert to starch very quickly, which results in flavor loss and a woody texture. Choose spears that are firm, deep green in color, have tightly closed tips, and that are not shriveled and dehydrated.
To have more control when cooking, choose stalks that are close to the same thickness. The woody end should be snapped off where the stalk gives when bent. Another method is to use a paring knife to test the ends and cut when the knife easily sinks in. (The paring knife tends to save you a bit more end.) Storage is simple and with a clean trim of the ends and stood upright in about an inch of water, it will keep for a week or so. Place in a refrigerator to maintain freshness.
The time is now for happy asparagus lovers. Don’t wait too long to enjoy one of these tasty and easy recipes. Each season most of our local growers harvest for only six weeks, allowing the bed ample time to regenerate for a prosperous coming spring.