Asparagus: Like spears through our hearts

story and photos by Grace DickinsonAsparagus is a hard worker. Plant it in a field, and you’ll see. Once the stalks get growing, they don’t stop. “Keeping up with it is a chore in itself,” says Deborah Rudman, this month’s featured gardener. “Though a good chore.”

Asparagus’s constant growth calls for a relentless (almost daily) picking schedule, with stalks shooting as high as 10 inches in just 24 hours. The crop is only harvested in the spring, though it needs space in the garden all year. As long as you properly take care of the perennial, it will zealously do its job for years to come. Fifteen growing seasons down the road, don’t be surprised to see the same patch of asparagus sprouting just as quickly as during its first year.

Asparagus also works hard in the kitchen; it’s delicious raw in salads, roasted whole or in creamy, blended soups, like the one recommended by Chef Christopher Kearse (p. 15). Pair asparagus with a glass of wine (or three) and the vegetable will do its best to fight a hangover. A 2009 study in the Journal of Food Science found that asparagus — especially its leaves — have two key enzymes that protect the liver cells against toxins and can alleviate potential hangovers. So fill your plate (and your cup) and celebrate the arrival of the spring growing season with asparagus.

Nutrition 101
One cup of asparagus contains three grams of fiber, 20 percent of the recommended daily value of vitamin C, 30 percent of vitamin A and 11 percent of vitamin E, all for just 30 calories. It’s also a good source of iron, folate and other essential minerals and protein. Yes, protein. This veggie has roughly four grams of protein per one-cup serving.

What to look for
Bright green, firm stalks with tightly bound heads are all signs of fresh, young asparagus. Opt for stalks with dark green or purple-hued heads versus yellow-shaded tips, a sign of aging asparagus. Both thick and thin stalks are adequate, but aim for consistency to assure more even cooking.

For the Gardener

“Strawberries and asparagus in the spring — it’s such a ridiculously joyful time,” says Deborah Rudman who, in the back corner of her garden, grows both those perennials alongside blackberries and a few longstanding herbs. When Rudman and five fellow neighbors first planted an asparagus patch in their Front and Fairmount Streets space (named the “Front Yard”), they had to strategize the vegetable’s prospective growing location. “You have to pick a spot that’s not going to get in the way of your other crops because asparagus gets big when you let it go, which can shadow other plants,” explains Rudman. “And of course because it grows back every year, you can’t just dig it up and use the space once it’s finished producing.”

Once the season ends and the spears are let go, neatly planted rows of asparagus will transform into a wild, mangy forest. Rudman advises not to cut down the extra height until just before the next season. The stalks will dry out, but will stay attached to the plant, helping the asparagus survive the winter. However, you can tie the growth back to make a little extra room for ground-level summer crops.

From the Farm

Johanna Rosen, co-owner and director of Mill Creek Farm in West Philadelphia, agrees that site selection is essential to an asparagus patch. “It’s a choice to have a lot of production early in the season, and then you’re not getting anything out of that space later,” says Rosen who started planting asparagus at Mill Creek back in 2006. “But it’s so worth it just to have that delicious, sweet treat in the spring.” Rosen says that just-picked spears are so sweet that kids on farm tours will eat them straight from the ground. “If you want introduce a kid to a vegetable, that’s a great start.”

Since asparagus is a perennial plant, Rosen says that site preparation is essential to planting. “You’re not going to be turning that soil over once it’s planted, so it’s hard to get rid of some the perennial weeds that are better established if you don’t eliminate them beforehand,” she explains. Once planted, asparagus generally need a year or two to establish roots before reaping a harvest. Rather than seeds, Rosen says it’s easiest to start with crowns — large root masses — which will  build up the plants’ strength in that first year. “If you pick them during year one when the roots aren’t yet established, they likely won’t come back the following [year],” says Rosen. Once the asparagus are ready to pick, make sure to snap or cut them at ground level. “Cutting below the soil surface could damage part of the plant underground,” says Rosen, “but you don’t want to leave too much stem either, because that could invite rot.”

For the Kitchen

Christopher Kearse loves asparagus. “There’s just really no other vegetable that resembles it,” says Kearse, chef and owner of Will, a 30-seat, French-inspired BYOB on East Passyunk Avenue that opened in August (and shortly after was named 2012 BYOB of the year by Philadelphia Magazine). Critics have described his cooking as “fresh and unique,” and that’s in turn how he might describe asparagus. 

“The fresher you get it, the more flavor it will have,” says Kearse, who sources asparagus from Green Meadow Farm in Lancaster County. This spring, expect to see traditional dishes at Will, like poached eggs and asparagus topped with a champagne sauce and caviar, as well as more unusual appetizers, like a cold asparagus salad with rich truffles, or the dish featured below: mussels in an asparagus sauce. The creamy asparagus gives this classic dish a modern edge. “Mussels have this briny, salty characteristic, and the asparagus adds a nice earthy, grassy complement,” says Kearse. At the restaurant, the soup will be accompanied by a goat milk Chantilly rather than the Greek yogurt Kearse suggests as a quick alternative for the garnish.

Will, 1911 E. Passyunk Ave., willbyob.com

Mussel and Asparagus Velouté from the kitchen of Will

  • 2 onions, chopped
  • 10 cloves garlic, diced
  • 1 cup vermouth
  • 3 qts chicken stock
  • 3 bunches asparagus, ends trimmed, chopped into 1-inch pieces
  • 2 sprigs fresh thyme
  • 3 lbs mussels, rinsed thoroughly*
  • 3 cups spinach
  • Olive oil
  • Greek yogurt, to garnish

 *If any mussels have an open or broken shell, remove and discard.

Heat a Dutch oven over low heat and lightly coat the bottom with oil. Add half the onions and garlic. Cover the pan with a lid and cook until translucent, but not brown, stirring occasionally. Deglaze the pan with the vermouth and add chicken stock and thyme. Bring to a simmer, add mussels and cook for 5 minutes to steam open the mussels. Remove from heat and strain liquid into a bowl to reserve. Set mussels aside.

Clean out the pot, then cook the remaining onions and garlic in a little bit of oil, using the same technique as before. Add mussel stock and simmer until reduced by 25 percent.

In a large sauté pan, lightly coat the bottom with oil and heat over medium high. Add asparagus and sauté over high heat until caramelized but still not cooked all the way through. Add asparagus to the mussel stock and simmer for five minutes.

Purée stock and asparagus in a blender with spinach until smooth, then immediately cool over an ice bath.

Reheat as needed before adding the mussels. Garnish with a dollop of Greek yogurt.

For the Pantry by Marisa McClellan

Asparagus is a terrific candidate for preservation. Because it has such a short season, get going as soon as it hits the markets. When you first bring asparagus home, trim the ends and stand the bundles up in bowls of water to maintain optimum freshness.

To pickle, trim stalks to fit your jars. Blanch asparagus briefly and pack in jars with spices and a diluted vinegar solution.

To freeze, cut away woody ends, blanch asparagus and cool rapidly in ice water. Dry, pack into freezer bags, squeeze out air and seal.

Learn more about food preservation at McClellan’s blog  foodinjars.com

Grace Dickinson is a food blogger, photo enthusiast and recipe creator. These passions are brought together on FoodFitnessFreshAir.com, where she chronicles her experiments in the kitchen.