[Listen to this piece on WILL. It aired May 12, 2011. May isn't done yet, but asparagus almost is...]
My husband doesn’t like asparagus very much. That’s putting it mildly, actually. In fact, this is his reaction whenever someone asks him if he likes it. He makes this horrified face, and then says:
“UGH… have you SEEN the way it grows out of the ground????”
He says it looks like an alien, trapped underground, trying to escape, its purple or green tentacles perennially reaching through the earth every spring. Needless to say, he was not thrilled when I, an asparagus-lover, announced last year that I was dedicating a large bed in the corner of our backyard to asparagus… his most-feared vegetable.
He’s not TOO wrong about it, really. Asparagus is pretty weird from start to finish. It grows from crowns, and when you buy them at the garden store or get them in the mail, you’ll notice they look like big wads of spaghetti. Or little baby squid. You have to dig a trench a foot deep for them and plant them with some extra compost, so they’re a little more labor intensive than, say, tossing some lettuce seeds into the ground. Then, I’ve been told you’re not supposed to eat what comes up for two years, in order to establish the plants. Instead, you let them grow until they “fern out” – they turn into ferns more than 6 feet tall, and these ferns provide food for the crowns below as opposed to providing food for you. Asparagus also doesn’t like weeds. It also likes to be fed. Asparagus is a process.
Not only that. Asparagus is the first crown jewel of the new growing season, but its own season is pretty short. I noticed some action in our neighbor’s very-established asparagus patch in early April. It grows visibly over a period of several hours under the right conditions, so for several weeks these wonderfully generous neighbors offered up a bonanza of extra asparagus. It’s now the second week of May and the patch is – regrettably – slowing down, and while you’ll see asparagus at local farmers markets for a few more weeks… when it’s over at the end of the month or in early June? There are no regrets, no remember-whens, no strays popping up here and there. Not for asparagus. When it’s over, it’s over. If you decide to grow it, you should let those last stalks grow into those ferns I mentioned above so they can provide food for the crowns, and enjoy it as fancy-looking landscaping for the rest of the summer and into the fall. Plant accordingly.
So asparagus is a little bit high maintenance and it has a pretty short season and it has a weird growing habit. But… it’s yummy. Oh, it’s so yummy. Whether you cut it fresh from someone’s yard or buy it at a local farmers market or if you’re lucky enough to happen upon some growing wild along railroad tracks or gravel roads out in the country, it needs practically nothing to dress it up.
An impromptu Facebook poll of my friends revealed a myriad of ways to eat it. I personally love eating it scrambled with eggs. Some like to roast it with a little olive oil, salt, and pepper, maybe adding some lemon juice. It’s good roasted over whole wheat penne pasta with a little Parmesan cheese, says another friend. Another friend told me that some of her asparagus had gone missing. It took her most of the week to figure out that her young children were picking it and eating it before she could get to it. Finally, and this was my favorite because it’s totally true, another friend told me that she and her family eat it all ways – “binge on it” was actually how she put it – for the entire season, and just when they might be sort of be starting to get a little tired of asparagus all those ways, the season is over and they move on to something else. Eating seasonally is like that. No regrets. No remember-whens.
Of course, you can find asparagus year-round at your local grocery stores, if you want it. But besides being way more flavorful, the appearance of Illinois-grown asparagus is a sign. It’s a real sign of spring, that the sun is heading back in the right direction after all, that in the time between when the first tentacles – I mean, spears – start showing through the earth and when those last stalks are allowed to get big and blowsy and ferny…. Spring’s flowering trees will have come and gone. The tulips and daffodils will have bloomed. The farmers market will have started. Urbana-Champaign will have returned, for a couple of months, to being a sleepy little college town. And asparagus will have yielded to the next seasonal superstar… strawberries.
Best be getting your shortcake recipes ready – strawberry season will be here sooner than you think.
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