(Editor’s Note: We occasionally feature stories from our magazine, a kind of “best of Edible Twin Cities.” This article by Beth Dooley appeared in the May-June 2013 issue. Asparagus recipes are on this website under Recipes 2013.)
By Beth Dooley
In my grandmother’s starched Victorian home we ate asparagus with our fingers off a crisp linen napkin set on a formal white platter that now belongs to me.
“Pick them up mid-stem,” she’d demonstrate, “and do not dangle the tips over your mouth like a fish.” Just cut from her garden with giant clippers, the stalks blanched for mere seconds in a roiling pot, were vibrant green. They tasted of clipped grass and the tin bucket we carried them in, of morning fog and weak sun, they tasted like spring.
The stems we neglected to harvest would branch out into asparagus ferns that, many years later, I recognized at the plant shop where I purchased pots for my first apartment. When we moved to Minneapolis, and I had my own backyard, I planted asparagus, but by harvest time, we’d moved on to a different house on the other side of town. It takes at least three years for the crop to establish itself.
The season’s first vegetable crop, asparagus, like spring, is easy to love. Every year, I’m surprised by those persistent sun-seeking heads that poke up through winter’s waste , the damp leaves and muck. No wonder asparagus was considered an aphrodisiac, full of hope and mystery. It’s also rich in potassium to fight fatigue. Suspicious wives knew if their husbands had been cheating when dining with other women in the spring, by the smell of their pee that reflects its high sulfuric acid and phosphorous content.
My grandmother grew thick, plump asparagus that rivaled the notion that skinny stalks are best. To this day, I find the fatter stalks more meaty and succulent, well suited to pan-frying, oven-roasting, and grilling. And though most cookbooks encourage undercooking, I prefer my asparagus to be more tender than crisp. A little extra time calls forth the rich flavor and silky texture of the stalks.
Right now, our farmers’ markets are venues of verdant asparagus and I’ve been hauling them home in abundant bundles. I always buy more than we can ever eat fresh, so I freeze some for later, pickling the rest for gifts.
The best way to handle asparagus is to trim a quarter of an inch off the bottom of the stalk, set them upright in a bowl of water, and store them, uncovered, in the refrigerator. Very fresh asparagus will keep several days, sometimes up to a week, this way. Just before cooking, remove the woody ends by gently bending a few spears to find the natural breaking point where the tenderness ends and the toughness starts. Then trim the remaining stalks at the same point. One pound of asparagus serves two to four people, and yields about two to three cups of diced stalks. No doubt the best asparagus are those straight from your garden or the farmers market. Like these fleeting days of spring, they’re not here long.