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A&E >  Food

Art of asparagus

Locally grown spears capture freshness, flavor at their peak

Sylvia Fountaine

Our mild winter and unusually warm spring brought purple-tipped, tight-budded spears of spring asparagus a little early this year, an unexpected but welcomed surprise.

These days, asparagus can be purchased year round at most grocery stores, traveling here from Mexico, California, Chile and Peru. But there is something special about Washington-grown asparagus that makes their highly anticipated arrival all the sweeter. 

Fresh, snappy and beautifully hued, they taste and smell like real asparagus, not some lackluster imposter. Taste the difference for yourself, if you’re skeptical.

Gabriel Macias, asparagus grower and owner of Pacific Produce in Wapato, Washington, attributes its great flavor and freshness to having been picked and sold on the same day.

“When people buy locally grown produce, it only has to travel a very short distance. We start picking asparagus at 3 or 4 in the morning, right at its peak of flavor, when their buds are tight and closed and their tips have just turned purple, a sign of ripeness,” Macias said. “By 8 in the morning, we are on our way to local farmers markets.”

It really doesn’t get much fresher than that.

Like artichokes and rhubarb, asparagus is a perennial that returns after the ground thaws. Asparagus requires full sun, good drainage and loose soil. It also requires no shortage of patience, taking a full three years from seed to first harvest.

But to the faithful gardener, asparagus will continue to reward generously with hearty spears shooting up each spring for the next 20 years. During the first year of growth, miniscule spears grow into a ferny canopy which feeds the underground rhizomes. In year two, the rhizomes gradually gain strength, but are still not ready, but by the third spring, some of the spears will reach the diameter of a pencil, a sign that they are ready to harvest. Eventually a massive underground root system will develop and push up the asparagus spears an astonishing 6-10 inches in a 24-hour period. 

Originating from the Greek word “asparagos,” its meaning, “to spring up,” seems especially fitting. 

Washington has a substantial number of farmers and acres devoted to growing asparagus, but farmers like Macias are finding it increasingly difficult to find people to harvest it. And no wonder: harvesting asparagus is back-breaking work, as each stock must be cut by hand. Now when I eat asparagus, I can’t help think of the person who bent down to cut it, and send them a silent thank you.

By most accounts, wild asparagus originates from the edges of the sandy dunes and river beds of the Middle East. The ancient Greeks loved wild asparagus but it was the Romans who first figured out how to cultivate it more than 2,000 years ago. Greeks and Romans prized asparagus for its unique flavor, texture and medicinal qualities. It is said Roman emperors were so fond of asparagus that they kept a special asparagus fleet devoted to fetching it. 

White asparagus, popular in Europe, is the same plant as our green asparagus, but is grown and cooked very differently. Dirt is mounded up around the emerging stalk, so the plant has no exposure to sunlight whatsoever. This prevents it from producing chlorophyll, which would normally give it greenness. In flavor, white asparagus is less grassy and herbal tasting. It’s also sweeter with just a hint of bitterness.

Purple asparagus was originally developed in Italy by farmers in the Albenga region. It’s tender enough to be eaten raw, making it ideal for salads. Cooking it will dull the gorgeous color, so do so ever so briefly over high heat. Little embellishment is needed to showcase the best qualities of purple asparagus. 

In the kitchen, asparagus can be prepared myriad ways. When deciding, consider first its size. Thicker spears are easier to grill because they are more difficult to overcook and less likely to fall through the grates. Very thin asparagus can become overcooked within minutes, so more control over the heat source is crucial. This is when a wok is especially handy.

For a healthy raw salad, shave thicker tender spears with a vegetable peeler to create paper thin ribbons. Dress them simply with olive oil, white balsamic vinegar or lemon juice, shaved pungent cheese, like pecorino or romano, a few drops of truffle oil, salt and pepper. Simple, elegant and truly divine. 

My go-to preparation is to roast asparagus in the oven or grill it. Toss spears with a little olive oil, salt, pepper and lemon zest and roast in a 400-degree oven on a sheet pan until just tender, about 20 minutes. Serve as a side dish or use as a jumping off point, adding or incorporating into other dishes. Roasted asparagus could be pureed and made into a filling for ravioli, cut up and added to quiche, or left whole, topped with a soft boiled egg for a simple meal. In this recipe for Israeli Couscous, asparagus is roasted then tossed with the couscous, Kalamata olives, feta and lemon, and can be served warm as a main or chilled as a salad. 

One of my new favorite ways to cook asparagus is to quickly sear it in a wok. The quick high heat intensifies its vibrant color and cooks it to perfection within minutes while keeping its snap and crispness. In this recipe, asparagus is wok-seared with mushrooms, ginger, garlic and finished with a little toasted sesame oil for a flavorful veggie side dish. Add crispy tofu and make it a meal. 

And if you’ve never tried asparagus blended up in a soup, you are in for a treat. Blended with until smooth, creamy and luscious with fennel bulb and fresh tarragon, this bright green asparagus soup is a feast for the eyes, with a harmony of spring flavors.

Asparagus-Fennel Soup with Tarragon

1 white or yellow onion, diced

1 fennel bulb, cored and diced

2 tablespoons oil

3 cloves garlic, rough chopped

1/2 pound yellow, Yukon or white potatoes, sliced, skins OK

6 cups water or veggie stock or blend of both

4 cups chopped fresh asparagus (approximately 1 1/2 pounds to start, then trim the tough ends off), plus a few tips for garnish

1/4 cup fresh tarragon

1/2 cup fresh basil 

1/2 cup sour cream (don’t use nonfat)

1/4 teaspoon white pepper

3/4 teaspoon kosher salt

In a large heavy bottom pot, saute onion and fennel in oil over medium high heat, for 2 minutes, stirring constantly. Turn heat to medium and continue cooking until softened, about 5 to 6 minutes. Add garlic and saute for a couple more minutes, until garlic becomes fragrant. Add water or stock and sliced potatoes, and bring to a boil.

Cover, simmer on low 15 to 20 minutes until potatoes are cooked through and fork tender. Add asparagus, turn heat up and return to a boil, and cook for 2 to 3 minutes. Don’t overcook or you will lose the lovely color.

Remove from heat and let cool a bit. In batches, blend soup until creamy and smooth, adding in herbs. Blend well, so there are no herb specks. Whisk in ½ cup sour cream.

Return to the stove and heat gently. Do not let this soup boil; doing so will turn the color. As it is heating, add the salt and pepper. The salt will actually bring this soup to life, so do not forget to add it. Garnish with fennel oil (see recipe below) and sour cream, and serve.

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

Note: If you are using a substitute for sour cream (cashew cream or heavy cream) remember that sour cream has a good bit of tang, so you may need to add a one or two drops of lemon juice or white vinegar to balance the flavors. I have found that sour cream has just the right balance of fat and acidity.

Fennel oil

2 cups fennel fronds, chopped

1 cup Italian parsley

3/4 cup canola or light olive oil

Place fennel fronds and parsley in a strainer, and dip in large pot of salted boiling water for 30 seconds. Remove and immediately cool in an ice water bath, to shock. Drain, and squeeze dry with kitchen towels or paper towels to remove as much water as possible. Place in a blender, with just enough oil to cover, about ¾ cup (less is fine too). Blend, adding a little more oil if necessary, to keep the blade turning. (Keep in mind, the less oil you use, the more flavorful this will be.) Blend for a full minute, until fairly smooth. Let this sit in the fridge, as long as possible, preferably overnight. Strain with a fine mesh strainer or cheese cloth. Pour into a squeeze bottle. This keeps for a week or two in the fridge, or can be frozen.

Spring Asparagus with Israeli Couscous, Olives and Feta

For the couscous

2 pounds asparagus

1 to 2 tablespoons olive oil

Salt and freshly cracked pepper

Zest from one lemon, divided

2 cups Israeli couscous (uncooked) 

1/2 cup kalamata olives (pitted, sliced)

1/2 cup feta

1/2 toasted pine nuts (optional) 

Handful fresh mint, tarragon or Italian parsley

For the dressing

1/3 cup olive oil

3 tablespoons whole grain mustard

2 tablespoon red wine vinegar

2 tablespoon lemon juice

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon pepper

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

Trim off the tough ends of the asparagus. Lay asparagus on a baking sheet and drizzle with 1 to 2 tablespoons olive oil, sprinkle with a generous pinch of salt and cracked pepper, and half of the lemon zest.

Roast in the oven until just tender, about 20 to 25 minutes. Cut into bite-size pieces. (For faster preparation, blanch bite-size pieces of asparagus, along with the couscous, during the last 2 minutes of the cooking time of the couscous.) 

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add 2 cups Israeli couscous, and cook until al dente. While couscous is cooking, make the dressing. In a small bowl, stir all ingredients together. 

Drain couscous, and place in a large bowl. Toss it with the dressing, asparagus, olives, feta, pine nuts, fresh herbs and lemon zest. Serve warm as a side dish, or chill and serve as a salad. 

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

Wok Seared Asparagus with Mushrooms and Crispy Tofu

1 cup mushrooms, sliced (cremini, white button, or shiitakes)  

3/4 pound asparagus 

3 tablespoon ginger

3 tablespoon garlic 

1 pound extra firm tofu

1/2 cup corn starch

3/4 teaspoon kosher salt

3/4 teaspoon sugar

6 to 7 tablespoons peanut oil (or vegetable oil), divided

2 teaspoon Bragg’s Liquid Amino Acid (or soy sauce)

1 teaspoon rice wine vinegar

1 teaspoon sugar

Toasted sesame oil, for drizzling

Sesame seeds, for sprinkling

Slice mushrooms. Bend off the tough ends of the asparagus. (They will naturally break off where they are tender.) Cut into 2-inch pieces. Chop garlic. Peel and chop ginger. Pat dry tofu with paper towels, pressing down to release water. Cut into 1-inch cubes.

Place cornstarch, salt and sugar in a medium bowl and mix well. Toss tofu in the corn starch mixture. 

Heat 3 to 4 tablespoons oil in a wok over high heat. Once hot, turn heat to medium high. Shake excess cornstarch off tofu and carefully place tofu in the wok, working in 2 batches (don’t overcrowd). Turn tofu carefully every minute or so, until at least two sides are golden brown and crispy. Set tofu aside on a plate lined with paper towels. When all the tofu is done, wipe out the wok. Gather the prepped ingredients and the rest of the ingredients (soy, vinegar, sugar) and place near the stove, so there is no need to walk away.

Heat 2 to 3 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil in a wok over high heat. Just as it begins to smoke, turn heat to medium high and add mushrooms. Stir constantly for 2 minutes. Add ginger and continue stirring 1 to 2 minutes. Add asparagus and garlic, stir for 1 ½ to 2 minutes, until asparagus is just tender, but still crisp and vivid green. 

Add Bragg’s Liquid Amino Acids or soy sauce, sugar and vinegar. Give a few last stirs, taste for salt. 

Gently fold in crispy tofu at the very end right before serving. Add a little drizzle of toasted sesame oil and sprinkling of toasted sesame seeds to finish.

The Seasonal Kitchen is a monthly feature. Local chef Sylvia Fountaine writes about seasonal foods she’s making in her kitchen, sharing recipes and a passion for local foods. Fountaine is a caterer and former co-owner of Mizuna restaurant. She writes about home cooking on her blog, Feasting at Home, www.feasting

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