How to Cook Asparagus From Your Garden

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PHOTO: FOTOLIA/MYTHJA
Growing asparagus takes a little bit of patience, but the reward is worth the wait.

Asparagus (Asparagus officinalis) has always been one of my
favorite vegetables, but until I started cultivating it
myself, I had no idea how delicious the tender spears could
be. Garden-grown (just picked or home-frozen) asparagus
provides an experience in taste that just can’t be matched
by canned or even store-bought fresh produce. And the tasty
plant is nutritious, too — 100 grams of asparagus will supply 2.2 grams
of protein, 900 units of vitamin A, only 0.2 grams of
fat and only a mere 20 calories to your daily
total.

Asparagus has been cultivated since the days of the Roman
Republic, when it was considered a delicacy. Later, the
French grew the stalks in primitive hotbeds, and honored
them in still-life paintings. Eventually, asparagus was
brought to America and became popular both as a vegetable
and, you may be surprised to learn, as a medicinal herb (it
was believed to be a cure for jaundice).

There are a number of popular commercial strains of
asparagus available, the most common of which are the
Washington varieties. The Mary Washington, which I grow, is
both prolific and hardy in my part of Montana. It would
probably grow even better in a somewhat less severe
climate, although it does require a dormant period during
winter months and thus flourishes only when dormancy is
induced, which can be done either naturally — by cold
weather — or artificially.

I set out my Mary Washington roots in April by choosing
a spot where they’d get several hours of sun daily and
where I was pretty sure they wouldn’t be disturbed by
another project in the future, since I wanted to get a
lifetime of picking from the bed. For my first planting, I
dug a 12-foot trench, eight inches deep, and spread 20
pounds of ground limestone and 10 pounds of phosphate rock
in the bottom of the ditch. Then, I followed that with a five-inch
layer of compost and manure. Two inches of rich loam went
on top of that. Next — after giving the plot a heavy
watering — I planted a dozen clusters of roots, spacing
them about a foot apart. Finally, each time I weeded
during the next few weeks, I added fine compost and good soil
until the trench was filled.

As you may already know, asparagus shouldn’t be picked
during its first year. But the rewards of owning an
established bed make the waiting worthwhile. I mulched my
asparagus well that first fall, with compost and still more
manure. The following spring, I watered the bed
heavily, spread additional compost, and hand-plucked the
early weeds that had cropped up. (Some people let geese
take care of the weeding, but — if the idea appeals to
you — make sure the honkers are in their pen when the
first green asparagus tips show themselves!)

In Montana, the first spears begin to appear in late May or
early June. Let the shoots develop to about six inches
before you pick any. After that, keep a close eye
on the bed in order to garner the stalks before they go to
seed. During that initial harvest season, it’s best to
exercise a little self-discipline: Allow yourself only two
weeks of feasting, and then let the rest of the plants
mature. The second time around — and in subsequent
years — they can be gathered over a six-week
season.

Generally, an established plot will require little
attention. It may occasionally face minor insect problems,
but the worst threat to your plants will likely be a
disease called asparagus rust. The Mary Washington strain
is fairly resistant to this ailment, although it will
sometimes be attacked if it’s grown in areas that are
frequently damp. (For this reason, as well as because the
region has insufficient cold weather, asparagus doesn’t
often do well in southern Florida or along the Gulf Coast.)

Cooking With Asparagus

Asparagus is sweetest when freshly cut. Within hours after
picking, its sugars (like those of sweet corn) begin
turning to starch, and the vegetable acquires the slightly
bitter taste typical of most grocery store spears. Be sure,
then, that you’re ready to use or process your pickings
immediately.

Believe it or not, garden-fresh asparagus is even delicious
raw. You can munch on it while you’re doing your outdoor
chores, cut it up in a salad, or serve it as an appetizer
with sour cream or avocado dip.

To cook your crop, wash the spears — especially the
tips — to remove any clinging dirt. Tie a bunch loosely
together and place them upright in a deep, narrow pan (an
old coffeepot is often just the right size and shape) with
sufficient boiling water to cover the (tougher) bottom ends
of the stalks but not the tender tops. When the pot returns
to the boil, put a lid on it (to retain the steam) and cook
the stalks until they’re tender after about 10 minutes. Salt and pepper the spears to taste and
serve them with butter and a lemon wedge. Asparagus is also delicious when dressed up with cheese, hollandaise, or Bearnaise sauce, served with almonds or heated Italian dressing. For variety, you
might occasionally want to add ginger or crushed garlic, as seasoning.

Asparagus can, of course, be incorporated into many soups,
casseroles, and breads. Here are just two special dishes
that my family likes.

Crunchy Asparagus Recipe

Ingredients

1 tbsp. salad oil
3 cups of fresh asparagus cut in
inch-long sections
Salt and pepper

Directions

Heat the oil in the
skillet. When it’s quite hot, add the asparagus
and seasonings. Cover the pan and hold it just slightly
above a burner set on “high,” shaking it constantly. After
about 4 minutes, the morsels will have a wonderful
crisp-tender texture.

Asparagus in Wine Recipe

Ingredients

2 pounds of washed spears
1/4 cup of white wine
1/4 cup of
melted butter

1/2 tsp. of salt
1/4 tsp. of pepper
1/3 cup of grated Parmesan cheese

Directions

Dunk the asparagus in
boiling water, cover it, reduce the heat, and allow the pot
to simmer for just 8 minutes. Meanwhile, stir the wine into
the melted butter. When the time’s up, drain the vegetables
(save the liquid for soup makings), pour on the sauce, add
the salt and pepper, and sprinkle the cheese on top. Bake
the dish, uncovered, in a 425 degree Fahrenheit oven for 15 minutes.

What to do With Surplus Asparagus

Once your bed is in full production, it’s just possible
that your daily haul of tender spears will be more than you
want to consume right away. And, in my opinion, freezing is
about the best way to preserve asparagus, since its texture
and taste are better retained in that process than they are
in canning.

Here’s the method I use — every day, in season — to
store my extras for good eating the following winter. [1]
Clean the young spears and use string to tie them in
meal-sized bundles. [2] Bring a large pot of water to
boiling and add the asparagus. [3] Blanch it for 3 minutes
(begin timing only after the water returns to a full
rolling boil). [4] Lift the bundles out of the pot and
plunge them into ice water. [5] Once the stalks are
completely cooled, pack them — airtight — in
plastic bags or other containers. [6] Label and date the
packages, and pop them into the freezer.

As an alternative, you can dry asparagus, if you use only
the tender tips. First, wash them thoroughly, and then
steam them for 2 minutes. Spread the blanched tops, on
trays, in a dehydrator or a 140 degree Fahrenheit oven for 3 to 5 hours. Or dry them in full sun — when the temperature is
98 to 100 degrees Fahrenheit — for 8 to 10 hours. Don’t skimp on the
time — the stalks aren’t “done” till they’re either
leathery or brittle.

When reconstituted, dried asparagus has a soft
texture — much like that of the canned
product — and a brownish color. It’s best used in a
finely ground form, added to broths, sauces or casseroles.