This year, May arrived suddenly, without fanfare, but with enough warmth for bare arms. Like many prairie gardeners relieved to finally – and abruptly – exit winter, I spent the sunny first day of the month cleaning up my garden beds.
To my delight, I found furled red knobs in the rhubarb patch, and sprigs of chives and green onions taking in the sun. As I raked and tidied and turned the compost, I mourned again the lost pop-up springtime bravery of my asparagus bed – the 2011 flood that had surrounded our home took my garden, the garden my mom and grandmother had planted and tended for decades.
These days, the asparagus patch, black currants, strawberries, and raspberry canes are buried beneath the berm that surrounds and protects our house. I now garden in raised beds and containers, which pose a whole new set of challenges in extremely hot and dry summers such as last year’s. Maybe this year, if my time and energy allows, I’ll dig a new bed, banish the quackgrass, and plant some asparagus crowns.
In the meantime, I wait patiently for local asparagus to arrive at the farmer’s market.
Asparagus is not a good keeper, so cook it the same day as you buy it. If it has to wait in the fridge for a day or two, stand it upright in a shallow glass of water. Prior to cooking, thick spears may require peeling, but thin stalks do not. Just bend the bottom ends, and they will snap off where the stalks turn fibrous.
Simultaneously grassy and sulphurous, asparagus stalks are a great finger food, and deserving of their own course at the table. Let everything else wait while you enjoy them – their season is so short, so sweet. How to dress up your spring fling is up to you and the degree of flash you want to inspire. Here are a few suggestions.
Instead of steaming, try roasting or grilling asparagus. Pop them onto a hot grill, and turn several times. They just take minutes, so don’t go far! Oven-roasting – a single layer on a parchment-lined tray – is almost as quick in a very hot oven. In either case, oil lightly before cooking, then season with salt, pepper, and a drizzle of lemon juice as soon as they emerge from the heat.
For high flash value that’s good with champagne or a grassy Sauvignon Blanc as party food, wrap raw asparagus spears individually in slices of prosciutto. Up your game by adding a smudge of Boursin, herbed goat cheese, or a thin slice of Jarlsberg inside the packets before you roll them up. Roast quickly in a single layer in a hot oven. Drizzle with lemon juice just before serving.
Asparagus has a natural affinity for butter and eggs – what doesn’t? – and the licorice notes of tarragon or anise seed. To keep with the finger food motif, make a tarragon-blasted Bearnaise sauce, the classic brunch accompaniment. Add poached eggs and English muffins topped with bacon or smoked salmon, and you’ll hit a home run, albeit in knife-and-fork outfielder’s territory. Or combine the flavours in a tart, quiche-style, or in an omelet.
For a simpler, quickie version, crack a pinch of anise seed in a mortar and add to browned butter along with minced chives, lemon juice and zest, and drizzle over asparagus, poached egg optional.
Other flavour matches for asparagus include smoky-salty smoked salmon or BBQ/smoked pork, and mushrooms, especially meaty, musky morels. The spears also pair well with potatoes, and high-mountain Alpine cheeses like Emmenthal, Gruyere, and Compté. Lots of possibilities with those variants!
Toasted almonds chopped and sprinkled on asparagus spears in olive oil are also delicious. If you have any meat juices left over from a succulent roast, combine it with some good chopped black Nicoise olives and a squeeze of lemon juice, then spoon the mixture over cooked asparagus. Yum. Lots of choices, so short a season. First we eat, then we tend the garden.
Asparagus with Korean Peanut Sauce
Serve this dish alone or with jasmine rice, or with grilled salmon or pork. Serves 4.
1 lb. asparagus
1/3 c. sunflower oil, divided
salt + pepper to taste
¼ c. lemon juice + zest
¼ c. orange juice + zest
1 tsp. grated ginger root
1 Tbsp. light soy
1 Tbsp. roasted sesame oil
1 Tbsp. minced cilantro or chives
hot chili paste to taste
1 c. chopped toasted peanuts
Preheat the oven to 400 F or turn on the grill to medium-high. Brush the asparagus lightly with oil, then sprinkle with salt and pepper. Combine the remaining oil with all other ingredients except the peanuts. Cook the asparagus for 5-7 minutes, depending on thickness, turning as needed. Dress immediately with the vinaigrette and top with the nuts. Serve warm or hot.