This has been an asparagus season like no other.
Asparagus from south of the border was in the supermarkets at unheard-of prices this winter. A dollar a pound, $2 a pound — there was a huge supply, depressing prices. Even Nugget had asparagus at 99 cents per pound, presumably as a loss leader. And the quality of the imported asparagus was generally good.
But now the season of imports is over. Local asparagus is at hand. Asparagus vendors abound at the Davis Farmers Market, and local asparagus is touted in Davis supermarkets as well.
First, why is local asparagus a lot more costly than the imports?
Asparagus farming has migrated to Mexico, with declining acreage in California. Cheap labor is a big reason. The California crop simply isn’t that large, and the growers have higher costs.
Jim Mills of Produce Express, a regional provider of local produce to high-end restaurants, quantifies it this way. He was recently selling a box of Mexican asparagus, 28 pounds for $40, to his wholesale customers. Now it’s spiked higher, moving toward $70.
The upcoming Stockton Asparagus Festival, April 25-27, will take about 100,000 pounds out of the distribution chain. After that, with the end-of-season decline in the harvest, he expects the wholesale cost will jump to $72 and up.
Happily, local asparagus doesn’t just cost more. It tastes better. There’s a simple explanation: asparagus subtly changes rather quickly after it’s harvested. Realizing the taste advantage, you’ll see farmers with signs that broadcast their asparagus was harvested just yesterday.
When we grew asparagus years ago, Diane and I would snap off the stalks and eat them raw in salads. Asparagus that fresh actually has a sugary aspect in your mouth. Of course when we were cooking them, we’d picked them right before, as with the corn we grew.
I just bought some day-old local asparagus. At home, I immediately cut off the bottom quarter-inch. Then I sit the bundle in a glass of water, standing it up in the refrigerator until we cook it. This keeps it fresh, just like cut flowers.
When buying asparagus, look for tight tips, firmness in the stalk, and a glossy or waxy sheen. Second-rate asparagus will display dullness, a rubbery or desiccated feel, or telltale vertical striations. The hard white portion is inedible for all intents and purposes.
To prep asparagus for cooking, bend a spear in both hands. It will naturally snap at the right point near the bottom. Others like to trim with a knife to eke out the maximum yield.
Those bundles of skinny stalks? They’re not “baby” asparagus, the way baby beets and squash are younger and more tender. Those skinny spears are simply secondary growth. Chefs normally prefer the flavor profile of fat asparagus, but the skinny ones can be fun to eat. The fat ones are wonderful wrapped in paper-thin prosciutto; the thin ones, chopped up, work great in a vegetarian pasta.
It’s easy to cook asparagus successfully. Put stalks in a pot of boiling water, return to a boil, then lower heat so it’s just bubbling. Poke the asparagus with a knife tip to determine doneness. You still want some resistance when you pull them out, unless you like them soft. Remember, if you don’t immediately put them in ice water, they’ll continue to cook (and soften) after removal from the pot.
Another cooking option is to drizzle the asparagus lightly with olive oil and salt, then bake in a 450-degree oven or place on an outside grill at 350 degrees. Again, monitor. The grilled asparagus will often blacken if untended or unturned. In the oven, letting them go too long will create mush.
Plain asparagus tastes wonderful. However, a bit of butter, balsamic vinegar, or grated parmesan might be to your taste. Below are some other possibilities. For more, Google the California Asparagus Commission, which has a great variety of recipes.
— Dan Kennedy, a Davis resident, has a long history with the bounty of gardens and small farms. Reach him at [email protected]
Pasta with Asparagus
Buy a package of fresh pasta at the supermarket, or from Pasta Dave at the Farmers Market. The red and green vegetables create a beautiful plate. The trick is to have the sauce just ready when the pasta is al dente.
1 pound asparagus (or less)
Half a red bell pepper (quarter-inch dice)
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
2 tablespoons fresh flat-leaf parsley, chopped
Grated Parmesan or Pecorino Romano cheese
Putting it together:
Boil or bake asparagus until firmly al dente; slice to bite-size pieces and keep at the ready. In a sauté pan on medium heat, heat the oil and butter, add the bell pepper; soften for three minutes. Add asparagus with salt and pepper to warm for one minute. Transfer pasta, dripping wet, directly from the pot to the saucepan. Mix, folding in the parsley. Plate, top with grated cheese.
Consider replacing the red pepper with a cup of just-cooked fresh peas, now coming into season, or three slices of prosciutto, shredded.
A great appetizer. Thin asparagus are preferred, as they’re done when the cheese has melted.
1 pound thin asparagus
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 ounce Parmesan cheese curls (use a vegetable peeler on a block of cheese)
Salt and pepper to taste
Putting it together:
Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or use non-stick spray. Drizzle and coat the asparagus with olive oil, creating a one-layer array close together. Salt and pepper to taste. Spread cheese curls on top half. Bake in upper part of the oven until cheese is melted and asparagus are done. Plate, and serve with balsamic vinegar for drizzling.