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eG Cook-Off #77: Asparagus, the Spear of Spring


David Ross
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We were driving through Southeast Washington when suddenly Marnie shouted, "look, there it is, stop the car!" Needless to say, we were all a bit stunned and thought there must have been some critter scooting across the highway.  And then I saw it for the first time: asparagus.

 

It was decades ago, but every spring I relive the memory of seeing asparagus growing for the first time.  Our family had been at a horse show in Pasco, a town in the Columbia River basin in South-Central Washington.  We decided to drive over to Walla Walla, the heart of Washington's asparagus fields, to visit Whitman College.  Mother had graduated Whitman in 1946, and we were taking our family friend Marnie to visit campus where she would start her freshman year in the full.

 

It was then that I fully understood why asparagus--seasonal, local asparagus--is a prized delicacy of spring.  I had the idea it grew on a bush.  Or maybe it grew in some sort of cluster, cloaked within a heavy blanket of outer leaves like cabbage or cauliflower.  Yet there it was, one stalk at a time,  bursting up through the rich soil fed by the Columbia River.  Rows and rows of single stalks of asparagus standing in a perfect line.

 

Given Mother's ties to Whitman College and Walla Walla, the role that asparagus would play in shaping our family's tastes for this special vegetable should have been easy to predict. (As an aside, Walla Walla is also the home of the "Walla Walla Sweet" onion.  Mother used to tell us she loved a raw Walla Walla sweet sandwich on white bread with mayonnaise).

 

Now I'm sure you've got your own culinary memories and favorite asparagus dishes to tempt us.  So today we'll begin eG Cook-Off #77: Asparagus, the Spear of Spring. (See the complete eG Cook-Off Index here.)

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I've been going through my recipes in preparation for our celebration of all things asparagus.  I thought I'd start with a Chinese-style asparagus dish.  I think the first time I made it I probably surprised a few folks who typically only make steamed asparagus.  They'd never imagine asparagus paired with Asian flavors.

 

Sometimes I trim the stalks using a vegetable peeler, which makes the asparagus more tender to the bite.  In this case I cut the asparagus stalks in half, giving a mix of the crunchy stalk with the inner, softer core.  A quick blanch in boiling water.  I usually add a few dashes of "Fruit Fresh" (basically ascorbic acid), which keeps the asparagus bright green.  I don't need to pull it from the hot water and then plunge it into an ice bath to get the same effect.  Then into a hot wok with some sesame oil, a spoon or two of chili, garlic, black bean

sauce I buy at the Asian market, a sprinkle of sesame seeds and there we are. 

 

Asparagus with Black Bean Garlic Sauce.jpg

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Great memory David. I can see your look of wonder in my mind's eye.

 

I didn't grow up with asparagus and honestly can't remember my first taste. Once I had it I was hooked. For some reason I associate it with artichokes. so maybe it was during mom's experimental phase ;)

 

Before the roasted vegetable craze swept the nation I always enjoyed it simply steamed or cooked with minimal water/tight fitting pan lid and dipped in a sharp mustard sauce or mustardy, garlicky mayo.  I do enjoy the thicker spears roasted. I served it as an appetizer at a recent dinner gathering to roasted asparagus virgins. They devoured the spears with oohs and aahs.  I coat lightly with olive oil, soy sauce, and a touch of honey.

 

Edited by heidih (log)
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I never tasted fresh asparagus until long after I was married.  My Mother ate only canned asparagus and if you've ever tasted it, you'll know that it is about as much like asparagus as Cheese Whiz is like aged Canadian cheddar.

 

We moved out onto the farm 23 years ago and for reasons unknown, had a good patch of asparagus growing on the lower dirt driveway.  Yum.  Our own private patch.  How old it was or who planted it we'll never know.  One year it rained like crazy in the spring and we ended up with so much asparagus that we actually got sick of eating it.  I didn't know that could happen. 

 

Then the year we did the major renovations which included a new septic tank, an added living room at the back with basement room, and repointed, reparged the entire foundation (including discovering that there was basically no exterior foundation at the back of the house...a common practice back when), etc, etc, the large trucks in and out destroyed our asparagus patch and we have been forced to buy it ever since.  So sad.  I mourn its loss.  No, I am not a gardener. 

 

(We also have an ancient patch of rhubarb but I try to give that away.  Rhubarb just takes too much sugar.) 

 

 

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Darienne

 

learn, learn, learn...

 

Life in the Meadows and Rivers

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I've found some good asparagus from Mexico in the supermarkets this spring, but nothing beats our local asparagus when it comes into season, yet it's just not the same as our local asparagus.  Right now we're at the $1.79 per pound mark and it may go a little lower depending how the season shapes up.  We're also blessed with wild morel mushrooms this time of year.  Last spring I found some for $7.99 a pound, foraged wild and sold at both a grocery store and the local farmers market.  Both an incredible buy for asparagus and wild mushrooms that have a short growing season in these parts.

 

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I love anything you can do to it. Some of my favorite preps:

 

 -- Saute fresh corn kernels and asparagus in butter until barely crisp-tender, with a healthy handful of minced tarragon. Add steamed shrimp, and toss just until the shrimp are warmed. 

-- Drizzle spears with olive oil and roast at 450 for about 6 minutes. Put on a platter and sprinkle with some lemon zest. Cube cantaloupe and fresh mozzarella and toss with a lemon viniagrette; pile on top of the asparagus. Sprinkle the whole thing with grated parmigiano.

-- Saute in butter, slide onto a plate, and quickly fry an egg or two in the remaining butter. Slide on top of the spears and dig in.

-- Cut into one-inch lengths, blanch quickly, and shock in ice water. Toss with sliced raw sugar snap peas, par-boiled carrots (to the point they're a little tender but not cooked through), in a mixture of 2:1 vinegar to granulated sugar. (It's good to add sliced mushrooms to this, right before serving.

 

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Don't ask. Eat it.

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This is another dish I found in my asparagus files that I did a few years back.  And I'll do a new variation of it in the coming days for our cook-off.  It shows how well asparagus pairs in a salad.  I had cured some wild spring salmon gravlax style, then paired it with some dark dye croutons, shaved asparagus and tips, some chive blossoms from my garden, lemon zest and olive oil.  It's a nice lunch or starter for a bigger dinner.  Lox is good on its own, but the asparagus brings in that woodsy, herbal flavor.  Delicious. 

 

I love a good omelet stuffed with asparagus and I'll be making a dish with asparagus, prosciutto and honeydew.

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I'm watching one of those goofy Hallmark movies and one of the characters is a Southern cook and served up fried asparagus with Creole mustard sauce.  Looks good. Anyone fry it?

Edited by heidih (log)
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2 hours ago, David Ross said:

 We're also blessed with wild morel mushrooms this time of year.  Last spring I found some for $7.99 a pound, foraged wild and sold at both a grocery store and the local farmers market.  Both an incredible buy for asparagus and wild mushrooms that have a short growing season in these parts.

 

Sneaking this one in because David Ross opened it up.  Last year we had such a crop of wild morels on the farm we could not believe it.  I've marked a lot of the spots and am checking them daily.  

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Darienne

 

learn, learn, learn...

 

Life in the Meadows and Rivers

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3 hours ago, Darienne said:

I never tasted fresh asparagus until long after I was married.  My Mother ate only canned asparagus and if you've ever tasted it, you'll know that it is about as much like asparagus as Cheese Whiz is like aged Canadian cheddar.

 

My early exposure to the Spear of Spring was as dismal. When I was growing up, my mother also only did canned asparagus. To complicate matters, she considered it a splurge-treat because she loved asparagus, we could only get it canned, and those cans were terribly expensive. Yecho! My sister and I detested it. Your comparison of canned vs. fresh is spot-on. Some time during my high school years, fresh asparagus would occasionally reach the local grocery stores at what my parents considered an affordable price. My mother occasionally splurged on it. Alas, as I recall it just wasn't something that she knew how to cook. I grew up thinking it was inevitably a bland or bitter, army-drab cylinder of mush.

 

Sometime after I flew the coop, probably after "nouvelle cuisine" hit California, I learned that asparagus doesn't have to be cooked that way. Heck, it doesn't have to be cooked at all! Grilled, steamed, raw, blanched - yep, that's good stuff. Better still, we actually have the wild stuff growing around where we live. I've been keeping my eyes peeled for it, but it isn't up yet.

 

Asparagus, ramps and pancetta with pasta, per Paula Wolferrt. Asparagus with smoked salmon in a pasta alfredo. Asparagus souffle. Asparagus with a lemon-caper sauce. Asparagus used as a conveyance for aioli. What's not to like about asparagus? I'll be joining this topic with photos soon.

 

Keep the ideas coming, folks!

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Nancy Smith, aka "Smithy"
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"Every day should be filled with something delicious, because life is too short not to spoil yourself. " -- Ling (with permission)

"There comes a time in every project when you have to shoot the engineer and start production." -- author unknown

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Oddly, I like both canned asparagus and the fresh kind, albeit they bear little resemblance to each other. There's a taste to the canned I like, particularly when heated with a bunch of butter.

 

I'd forgotten about having it fried. That's good. I've had it both in a tempura batter and in panko crumbs. Another favorite is to wrap in ribbons of proscuitto and roast.

 

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Don't ask. Eat it.

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Many years ago, I ate a wonderful asparagus starter in this restaurant in London. Stacks of beautiful local English asparagus were rolled with phyllo/ filo pastry then baked. The pencils of asparagus in the crisp pastry  were served with  a spicy mayonnaise. Over the next few years, I replicated the dish many times, but haven't had it in twenty years. No phyllo/ filo pastry available here in China.

 

6 hours ago, David Ross said:

They'd never imagine asparagus paired with Asian flavors.

 

Asparagus is very common here in my part of China. Every market and supermarket has it. In Chinese it is 芦笋 (lú sǔn) which literally means 'reed bamboo shoot' and most people here do believe it's a type of bamboo. I also saw it in Vietnam when I was there two weeks ago and have eaten it in Thailand.

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Where I grew up I haunted the creek looking for the trailing arbutus, wild violets and the first of the wild asparagus.  The creek was a brackish one and the asparagus I found was half the size of the pencil ones you buy now.  I would eat it RAW!!!!  I was taught NOT to be greedy and take all but let some go to seed for the birds.  Once the first asparagus were found it was off with my mom to look for others on public property..

 

As it is Mother's Day here I want to add a rememberance of my mom who I lost almost 38 years ago... though it could also go under the foraging topic as well.

Once I found those first spears we would get in the car(a green Chevette) and roll along the local roads with me in the passengers seat and my head out the window looking for things that I told my head weren't supposed to be there - mainly at this time it was those tiny, thin spears of sweet asparagus.  I would also begin to make note of blooming wild grapes and where the tangles of berries would be later in the summer - blackberries, wine berries, wild raspberries.  Throughout the seasons we would cruise around with me looking like a deranged lab with my head out looking left and right.   Love and miss you, Mom.

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Nothing is better than frying in lard.

Nothing.  Do not quote me on this.

 

Linda Ellerbee

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My favorite asparagus dish of this spring is the Raw Asparagus Salad with Breadcrumbs, Walnuts & Mint from Six Seasons. The header notes say to make this dish with the first pristine spears of spring asparagus, before you do any cooked dishes. The recipe is available online here.

IMG_7483.thumb.jpg.762602af032eff78657f1eeb16c21b4b.jpg

I like the way the asparagus spears are sliced thinly, at a sharp angle and I seem to be using that method of cutting them a lot lately.

 

Today I made an asparagus riff on another Six Seasons recipe,  Pasta alla Gricia. That recipe is also available online, at this link.

IMG_7786.thumb.jpg.de9f527a2c1350f67cf568698d1421f6.jpg

He calls for 4 oz of sugar snap peas/2 oz pasta/serving. I used the same proportions, but with asparagus......and added an egg.

 

Here's another recent asparagus/egg combination, this time on an English muffin:

IMG_7628.thumb.jpg.cac3a53ed2c3f7c2cb3aeecd154774b3.jpg

 

Lastly, asparagus quesadillas from Nopalito:

IMG_7597.thumb.jpg.f706bbb785a33d39463577a08d8c891e.jpg

 

Edited by blue_dolphin
hit submit before I was done (log)
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22 hours ago, Darienne said:

My Mother ate only canned asparagus and if you've ever tasted it, you'll know that it is about as much like asparagus as Cheese Whiz is like aged Canadian cheddar.

 

Ha, I worked at a cannery when I was a kid and we canned asparagus for what felt like forever! That season never seemed to end. At first my job involved separating out less appealing spears to send on to soup production. Later, I gathered the better specimens by size for canning. The area I worked in was hot and steamy and reeked and I carried that smell home with me, then desperately tried to get it out of my clothes and hair.

 

It was years before I could eat asparagus without feeling nauseous. And then I discovered that I lack the mutated gene that would prevent me from smelling the body's breakdown of the asparagusic acid. That was somewhat off-putting as well. Now I know it's likely most bodies do the same thing, just some folk have that mutated gene in their olfactory receptor region. 

 

https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/why-asparagus-makes-your-urine-smell-49961252/

 

I can and do enjoy asparagus occasionally now, but it's still not at the top of my list. I'm much more likely to prepare it for someone else than myself. It's interesting to see what people do with it, though. 

 

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18 hours ago, liuzhou said:

Many years ago, I ate a wonderful asparagus starter in this restaurant in London. Stacks of beautiful local English asparagus were rolled with phyllo/ filo pastry then baked. The pencils of asparagus in the crisp pastry  were served with  a spicy mayonnaise. Over the next few years, I replicated the dish many times, but haven't had it in twenty years. No phyllo/ filo pastry available here in China.

 

 

I am ever so susceptible to suggestions! A package of phyllo dough has been liberated from the bottom shelf of my freezer and is currently thawing out so I can make some of these. I've been wanting to try the Preserved Lemon Aioli in Shaya so if the mayo gods are with me, I'll have that on the side.

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Imagine the size of asparagus stalks would be important with this.  Let us know how you make out...this would be something we would like.

 

i do prefer my asparagus baked/grilled.  To me it has better flavour, more complex.  Good eats just ran a show on asparagus and they said roasting at high temps causes the formation of many different flavour compounds as compared to steaming or boiling.

 

deb Madison uses roasted asparagus in here cream of asparagus soup.  I made it and it was better than my usual stock poached asparagus soup.

 

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Speaking about phyllo or puff pastry.  I've done a sort of asparagus napoleon with layers of pastry, then a thick mayonnaise accented with tarragon, poached asparagus and off it goes with a few more layers.  It's good just like that, but I've also added an herb salad on the side.  I've even had a version of this type of dish at a fussy wedding reception.  Well, the wedding was fussy but the asparagus was good.

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Inspired by @liuzhou, asparagus spears wrapped in phyllo.

IMG_7794.thumb.jpg.de63fd9c452ab5939ad5f36e42bc6a53.jpg

Rather decadent.  Served with the Preserved Lemon Aioli from Shaya which is nice but I should have trusted myself and used less extra virgin olive oil.  At 1:1 extra virgin olive oil:canola oil, it's a little heavy tasting.

 

3 hours ago, Okanagancook said:

Imagine the size of asparagus stalks would be important with this.  Let us know how you make out...this would be something we would like.

I'd say these stalks are medium sized and they were nicely cooked in the time it took the phyllo to brown. For super thin spears, you can wrap 2 or 3 together.  Big thick ones could be blanched but I think there's room to cook them longer in the oven without resorting to that.

I cooked these in the CSO at 350°F (mine seems to run a bit hot) on convection bake for 12 min, then turned them and baked 3 min more.  

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