Stalks of Spring
Seasonality, freshness, local produce. They’re concepts that are all sexy and fashionable now, but when I was growing up in the 1970s, eating only food that was in season, fresh, and came from close by would have meant a very dull menu. Of course there were exceptions like bananas and lemons, freshly available all year long, but in general, in Indiana in 1975 we ate what was grown nearby, when it was grown, which meant summer and only summer. We waited all year long for the chance to revel in markets full of fresh strawberries, Big Boy tomatoes, peaches and corn on the cob in July and August. We filled ourselves up with these treats and then, in September, turned to cans of rather tasteless, shadowy versions of them, suspended in salty water or heavy sugar syrup.
In the London of 2012, life with food is very different. Cooking magazines and websites talking lovingly about seasonality and tell us when to buy leeks and celeriac and blackberries, but everything is actually available all the year round. If it is in season in Thailand or Peru or California, it’s fresh on the shelves in London every day of the year.
This palate of choices includes one of our family’s favorite vegetables, asparagus. I still feel it’s a bit exotic, since during my childhood it appeared only in very occasional cans given to my mother as a special treat by her Uncle Wayne, who worked for Frosty Acres, a frozen and canned food concern in Kentucky. The gift of tinned asparagus was placed reverentially by my mother on a shelf too high for us children to reach, and she valued it so greatly that sometimes she couldn’t even bear to open it, and it went past its best-by date in dusty darkness behind closed cupboard doors. I never saw a fresh stalk until I was well over the age of consent.
In England, however, fresh asparagus is king, queen, prince and princess. If anyone here doesn’t like the stuff, it’s never spoken aloud. It has a short, beloved season between May and June, and boy does it get a lot of attention, springing up in the English fields, growing up to 4 inches a day. For about six weeks every late spring, the farmers’ markets, honor system farm stands, and even supermarkets are filled to bursting with this most treasured and quirky British crop. Cultivated in England since the 16th century, asparagus is an excellent source of folates (believed to aid in the prevention of cancer and proven to aid in the healthy development of a fetus), thiamin and vitamin B.
In England asparagus is traditionally grown green, saturated with cholorphyll from the sun, but it can also be grown underground and turn out white (this does not affect the nutritional values). The American writer Phoebe Nobles has memorably described white asparagus in her essay “Asparagus Superhero“:
“For the purposes of this essay, all asparagus will be green. What is white asparagus? It is grown in secret caves, as mushrooms are. It is a long, spooky fungus. It is naked and phallic. At the end of winter, I want to see green. White vegetables do not make me want to live.”
The appearance of asparagus – and its fruity seasonal compatriot, strawberries with whom it shares market tables – is the first sign in England that the long gray winter is finally over. Of course the Germans famously love their asparagus as well, as do the Californians and the French with their pretty wild version. But their winters are snowy or nonexistent; there is not the endless parade of cold and rainy days of an English winter, when darkness falls at 3:30 in the afternoon and makes us want to eat nothing but potatoes.
Every spring, I wonder why I bought Peruvian asparagus in January, because there is simply no comparison to the beautiful local vegetable we can find in abundance in May. Magazines are filled with novel ways to cook asparagus, but also with poetic praise for the simplest way to eat it: steamed and served with plenty of butter.
Last week I motored out for a little PYO adventure at Garsons Farm, a family business since 1871, just a half an hour’s drive from central London. My husband and I sauntered up to the rickety little hut at which sat a silent young man who handed us a green plastic bag and pointed in the direction of the field. At first we thought there was nothing there! An asparagus field is very unsatisfying to gaze at because the crop is spread far and wide and the spears few and far between. We walked and walked, picking occasionally in the hot sun and gathering, almost accidentally, four pounds of the stuff! We gnawed on a couple of raw stalks and it was lovely, dripping wet where we’d snapped it out of the ground, crunchy and light.
Eating asparagus in season involves deciding what thickness you want, because in the field (and in the farmers’ markets) in England you’ll find three choices: very thin, often called “sprue,” which are the first stalks to appear and in crowded fields are harvested early in order to give the remaining stalks space to fatten up. The sprue used to be terribly trendy back when it was thought that only the tips of asparagus were desirable (my daughter in fact eats only the stems and leaves the tips for someone else to pilfer off her plate). Then there is a middling thickness, the most common to find in a supermarket to appeal to the greatest number of people. Then there are the super-thick stalks, which at the height of the season are gathered up and wrapped in paper, with the British flag printed on the front. Your choice is entirely a matter of taste, literally. Everyone likes what she likes. I prefer thick because of the ratio of flesh to skin, so long as I’m able to take it home and prepare it myself.
The most important thing is to take the time – unless you really don’t have it – to achieve the perfect stalk by snapping it at the freshness point, rather than cutting them all at once with a knife, to be the same length. Each asparagus stalk is fresh only down to a certain point, and you’ll find it by being open to where it might be, and bending the stalk until it snaps.
If you’re really full of spare time and want to get fancy, you can run a vegetable peeler down the stalks to remove the peel below the frondy tips. Time to start cooking. Asparagus has a very short shelf-life in terms of nutrition, taste and texture (about two days in a fridge with a wet paper towel around the stalks), so get cracking. Begin simply, just steamed and drizzled with melted butter or homemade Hollandaise sauce one day, then the next sautéing it in salty olive oil and eating it with your fingers straight from the pan. Then perhaps it’s Everything Stir-Fry, with homemade fried rice. And is there anything creamier, smoother, than Creamy Asparagus Soup? If you’re in the market for a rich brunch dish starring asparagus, look no further than my Asparagus Salad with Poached Egg and Bacon recipe.
Now, no piece on asparagus would be complete without addressing the awkward question of… asparagus pee. The distinctive (and I’m pretty sure we can agree, unpleasant) odor perceptible in urine as short as 15 minutes after having eaten asparagus is caused by an enzyme secreted by only 40% of people in the world. Even stranger than that only 40% of people in the world can smell the odor, but they’re not always the same people! The same effect produced by eating beets applies to only about 14% of people, depending on how efficiently their digestions process the pigmentation. Don’t let the odor scare you away from asparagus, though, as you’d be missing one of the world’s greatest green vegetables and a true harbinger of most welcome springtime.
What’s your favorite way to cook and enjoy asparagus?
Photo Credit: Kristen Frederickson and Avery Mycroft Curran
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