Happy National Asparagus Day!
I don’t remember ever not liking asparagus, but I fell head over heels in love the first time I ate asparagus fresh out of the patch. The vast majority of vegetables are at their best when they have time to fully ripen before being harvested, and when the time from harvest to table is less than an hour. But there are a few, like asparagus, tomatoes, and Brussels sprouts, that are very nearly another species altogether when eaten that fresh.
My husband’s grandfather (“Gup”) had a massive asparagus patch. Every Sunday, he’d drive up to his sister’s for dinner, and of course, during asparagus season he’d bring some along. We had the privilege of living with him for four years, during which time the asparagus patch, having already lived more than thirty years, was about done. So one spring, he decided to replant. He got a farmer to dig the trenches, which I paced out and marked with string, then he took on the task of filling and tilling. There were three rows, each with nearly 20 plants. That’s a lot of asparagus! Every day, he’d go out and fill in another inch or two.
That’s how you establish asparagus. You start with a trench, deep enough so that the crowns will be below the frost line. Then you work in some compost and a little fertilizer and make a small mound of dirt for each crown. Park a crown on top of a mound, then separate and spread its roots. Fill the trench in just enough to cover the roots and crown. Water and wait. Every day or two, fill in just enough to cover the recent growth. That’s how you baby the plants up to the surface. When the trench is completely filled in, all you have left is watering and weeding. Mulching with straw helps to keep the weeds down, and also to keep the dirt from splashing up onto the asparagus every time it rains. To harvest, just snap the spear off close to the ground.
Don’t harvest for the first year or two, depending on how old the crowns were when you bought them. Fertilize in mid-July, and be sure to cut down and dispose of all the ferns when they die back in late fall. This is an old photo of the garden in late summer, seven years after Gup planted the asparagus. On the left, you can see the ferns just above the red daylily blossoms and below the orange corn tassels. The ferns grow to about five feet (1.5 meters) tall. There are five crowns of his planting that still produce. I have no doubt that, had I been able to properly care for the patch, they’d all still be productive. At the patch’s peak, I sometimes had to harvest twice a day!
So anyway, there’s Gup, working the full-size RotoTiller up and down the fifty-foot rows, stopping every now and then to rest on an upturned wooden crate. He was 87! I was nearby, fighting my annual losing battle with quack grass. He said to me, “I bet you think I’m a crazy old man, planting this asparagus when I probably won’t live long enough to eat any.” I said, “I hope you live long enough to enjoy it for many years! But if you don’t, I promise to think of you whenever I eat asparagus.” He died that same summer, sorry to say, but I’ve kept my promise. That’s not the end of the story, though. The next spring, when the asparagus started to produce, he paid me a visit. True story! First I smelled him (you know how people have their own, unique scent?), then I clearly heard his voice say, “Take some asparagus to my sister!” Wow. Of course, we did, every year for the rest of her life.
Three years ago, I planted some more asparagus. It’s closer to the house, for those days when the old patch is too far to walk, and it’s near a faucet so I can water if the season is unusually dry. Unfortunately, one of the “all male” plants turned out to be female. It has a tendency to fern out before any spears are tall enough to harvest, rushing toward producing berries. Male plants put all their energy into foliage so they’re more productive from a human consumption point of view. The berries are pretty, though, aren’t they? And they’re productive in a way the males aren’t: I found some baby asparagus plants out behind the barn!
There are plenty of creative ways to cook asparagus. The first pick of the season, though, is such a treat that I don’t want any other flavors competing. Just a bit of steam and a very brief cook time, and it’s perfect. The short cook time is crucial. I’ve met folks who swear they don’t like asparagus. Turns out a lot of them just don’t like overcooked asparagus, which is understandable. I don’t either, but it seems a lot of people cook it that way. If you pick a spear up at the middle, the ends should just barely be a little lower than the center. If the spear forms an upside down U, then it’s very overcooked. Sixty to ninety seconds is all you need, possibly even less if the spears are quite thin.
Whether your asparagus comes from your backyard, the farmers’ market, or the grocery store, it will keep best if you stand it upright in a pan or jar with an inch (2.5 cm) or so of water. Put it in the fridge if it’s going to be more than a few hours.
Before cooking, snap off the tough ends. Holding the asparagus with both hands, gently bend the stalk in a few spots towards the cut end. You’ll feel that it resists bending more and more, the closer you get to the end. Find that sweet spot, and break it there. No wrong answers here. If you find you’ve snapped it too far up, go ahead and cook the broken part also. If you broke it too far into the tough zone, you can either break it again or use a vegetable peeler on the toughest part.
Break the spears so they will fit your pan. I’ve harvested a few that were tall enough that I ended up breaking them in half. You get a piece without a top, but it’s an extra piece, so who cares?
Bring some water to a boil in the pan. You don’t need much, maybe enough to come halfway up the side of your pile. Add the asparagus to the boiling water and cover the pan. Don’t walk away. Cook only for a minute, two if every spear is wider than your thumb. Check the littlest ones first. Sometimes you have to remove those and let the bigger ones cook a few more seconds.
Serve immediately. We consider steamed asparagus to be a finger food. Dig in!