Asparagus! Get it quick while it’s fresh and local
Food for Health: Jennifer L. Kronholm
One of the first indications that spring is really here is the appearance of asparagus at local farmstands. Last week, asparagus season arrived at Silamar Farm on Route 22 in Millerton (across the road from the Harney and Sons Tea factory).
The asparagus season here in the Tri-state region is very short, usually running from April to June. This spring’s cold weather has pushed the season back a bit. But a staff member at Silamar said the warmer temperatures at the end of last week finally pushed the first stalks into maturity. So, there may not be a mad abundance of asparagus, but what’s there is choice.
It’s also beautiful, with a deep purple tint (a response to the cool air) on the tips and on some parts of the stalks.
This is one vegetable for which locally grown makes a difference. The country’s largest producers of asparagus are California, Washington and Michigan, so a lot of what you find in the big grocery stores is trucked in from out west. It is not a popular crop for small farmers because it takes up a lot of space and must be hand-picked. It’s also a fussy little plant, and requires three years to mature in its bed before it can be harvested.
So when you see asparagus selling at a farmstand for as much as $6 a pound, be forbearing and remember: It ain’t easy to be an asparagus farmer.
As far as taste, local asparagus is generally sweeter and more tender than the sturdier stalks that have to survive cross-country truck voyages. (Keep this in mind when you’re cooking: fresh local asparagus will very quickly turn to liquid mush if you’re not attentive.)
Nutritionally, asparagus provides a plenitude of vitamins and minerals, especially the B vitamins — B1 through B6. It also has a ton of folic acid. All these together support (and increase) metabolism, keep your skin healthy and boost the immune system.
But wait, there’s more. Asparagus also has vitamin C, calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium and zinc — as well as 2 grams of fiber per 100 grams (3.5 ounces).
The amino acid asparagine, which the nervous system requires, was named for the plant because it contains so much of it.
Asparagus is low in calories, sugar and fat. And as if that weren’t enough enticements, it’s exquisitely easy to cook. If you get it fresh, there’s very little you need to do to this flavorful vegetable. Blanche it, boil it (but not for long), roast it, grill it.
In celebration of warmer weather (finally!) and longer days, I offer a very simple recipe for grilled asparagus. Break out the Weber, throw on your favorite meat and enjoy a large helping of asparagus on the side.
1 pound fresh local asparagus, ends trimmed
1 tablespoon olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
Get the grill good and hot. Brush asparagus with olive oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper. Grill for two to three minutes or until just tender. Be careful, because fresh asparagus cooks nearly twice as fast as store-bought.
Once the asparagus is cooked, there are many things you can do with it. Toast some nice rugged bread and slather it with fresh ricotta; lay some asparagus spears on top. Or simply rub toasted bread with a cut garlic clove and make a sandwich of plain asparagus, doused with a few drops of good olive oil and some crunchy salt and pepper. Add some thin slices of a creamy cheese (havarti is nice; so is St. Andre) to make it more filling.
Asparagus is heavenly with soft scrambled eggs. In fact, its taste and texture perfectly enhance all savory custards, including quiche.
Needless to say, grilled asparagus is excellent on any kind of salad you can concoct. If you have some fresh tarragon or chive flowers sprouting up in your garden, they’ll enhance the more subtle flavor of the asparagus.
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