Asparagus is one of our family’s most eagerly anticipated harbingers of spring, and we delight in the sight of the furled green tips emerging from the earth. It is not only a beautiful plant (a member of the lily family) and a delicious vegetable (actually a shoot), but offers incredible health benefits. Asparagus is said to hold anti-aging properties, detoxifying the body, as well as supporting the adrenal glands and neurological system. We have about 150 plants, of which, the first 75 were planted in 2008. In the years since, we have gradually added crowns of different varieties. Asparagus isn’t just a one-season plant; it is a perennial that can produce for more than 20 years, and there have been asparagus patches that have provided food for 50 years under the right conditions.
Once our asparagus is producing well, we eat it daily for as long as it’s in season. While our plot is fairly prolific, we choose not to attempt to preserve the harvest, beyond perhaps a few jars of asparagus soup or pesto tucked into the freezer (see recipes from May 2017 on cliftonhallfarms.com). We prefer to relish the bounty by feasting on the fresh harvest, as well as sharing with friends and neighbors. In addition to the delicious soup and pesto recipes, some other ways we enjoy asparagus include: simply sautéed in olive oil with garlic, salt, and pepper or folded into egg dishes such as omelets and frittatas (frittata recipe below). If you’re looking for a special meal for entertaining, try the recipe for Fettucine with Salmon and Asparagus from “Joy of Cooking.” Asparagus and Morel Bread Pudding from “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle” is another decadent way to enjoy this delicious vegetable. The fresh, tender spears, especially the thinner stalks, are also delicious to nibble raw or as part of a salad. To prepare for cooking, bend each stalk until the woody end snaps off. You may compost the tough ends or save them for use in making vegetable stock. Asparagus pairs well with parsley, tarragon, soy sauce, sesame, garlic, ginger, lemon, cream, hard-cooked eggs, Parmesan, and butter.
We harvest asparagus daily, preferably in the cool of the morning, although any time of day will do. Choose stalks that are at least six inches tall, and you may simply break them off near ground level with your hands, or use a knife to cut them. Immediately after harvesting, rinse them in cool water and refrigerate. Some people store them with the cut ends in a container of water to maintain freshness, but we have found storing them in a plastic bag or container works well too. They’re best when eaten within a few days. Towards the end of the season – usually around the time of the summer solstice – the stalks will tend to grow more quickly and start to fern out. Do not harvest stalks that are beginning to fern out; instead, choose those with tightly furled heads.
There are a few things with maintenance and care for the asparagus garden. Asparagus doesn’t like competition and is a heavy feeder of nutrients; therefore, weed control and fertilization are essential. In the spring, before the spears come up, rake in any of the autumn manure application that didn’t absorb into the soil, being careful not to disturb root systems. Do an initial weeding by hand, hoe, or weed burner. Then, place flattened cardboard or straw between the rows to suppress weeds. Growing asparagus in a raised bed has the advantage of easier weed control. As the season progresses, you may encounter problems with asparagus beetles. The best way we have found to deal with them is simply to harvest often before the beetles have a chance to do their damage. You may also pick the beetles off the plants by hand and put them in a container of soapy water. To stay ahead of the beetles, we sometimes harvest twice a day when the asparagus is at its peak production. Once you’ve stopped harvesting for the season, leave the green ferns standing, because their energy goes back into the roots for next year’s crop. As the days grow shorter in October and early November, it’s time to clean out the asparagus patch. Cut down the dead ferns after they are all brown, and burn them. Some people don’t cut down the old ferns until early spring, but due to our battle with asparagus beetles, we want to eliminate as many eggs as possible. After clearing out the garden, apply aged manure or specially formulated asparagus fertilizer.
Roasted Asparagus Shiitake Mushroom Frittata (2-3 persons)
Recipe by Chef Berkley Cline
6-8 eggs, well beaten
Pinch salt and black pepper
1 tsp fresh chives (any fresh herb will do)
6 to 8 spears of asparagus, roasted in oven at 350 degrees for 15-20 minutes (tossed first with extra-virgin olive oil, salt and black pepper
1 cup shiitake mushrooms, cooked in 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
¼ cup finely diced leeks
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
Optional: Goat or sheep cheese, 4 ounces, grated if necessary
Optional: Any leafy green vegetable like spinach, chard or kale, cooked
8- or 10-inch sauté pan, oven-safe
Heat the pan on medium heat, then add 1 tablespoon olive oil. Add the diced leeks and cook for 3 minutes or until translucent.
Meanwhile, add salt and black pepper to the egg mixture. When leeks are cooked, add egg mixture to pan and cook for 2 minutes. Then add the asparagus and shiitake mushrooms.
Add half the chives at this time, reserving some to garnish with. If using leafy greens, add them now.
If you are using cheese, you can add half the cheese near the beginning and half at the end. Finish cooking frittata in the oven under broiler or on stove top. You will have to flip the frittata if cooking on the stove top from beginning to end.