Sweet Seasonal Shoots

Best simply dressed: asparagus with a bit of butter, lemon juice, lemon zest and pepper is a seasonal treat.

Speaking of eating locally and in season, let’s talk about asparagus.

It is one of those foods that, when it is in season, I will gorge on. I am the same way with strawberries (as if you hadn’t noticed, since the last three photographs on this blog had strawberries featured in them), tomatoes and blackberries. So long as they are glutting the garden, I will be a glutton for them, eating them as often as three meals a day if I can get away with it.

Zak has become the same way with asparagus as I am; however, things were not always thus with us. He used to swear he hated asparagus.Then again, he barely ate green things at all, so it probably wasn’t what one could call an aversion to asparagus itself: he was just prejudiced against chlorophyll.

All of that changed a couple of years ago when I finally convinced him that he wanted to try asparagus. I had cooked it as I usually do: simmered in a tiny bit of water until barely tender, then drained and dressed with a tiny bit of melted butter, some lemon juice and salt, with a sprinkling of black pepper and lemon zest.

He tasted the first shoot, nipping it with much trepidation and hesitation from my fork. His eyes widened in surprise and he declared, “Hey, that’s pretty good.”

He then proceeded to eat half of what I had cooked for myself.

Which was allright, as I went right out the next day and bought two pounds more. And we ate all of it for dinner.

And that is what we do. When it is in season, especially when we can get it locally grown, we buy about two or three pounds of it at a time and eat it at least twice a week. By the time we start getting tired of it, it is no longer in season, and all that is left are the tough, mealy things imported from “somewhere else,” and we can move on to whichever new seasonal obsession is upon us.

Inevitably, when we eat large quantities of asparagus, the topic of urine comes up in conversation. This is not only because the two of us have the same sick sense of humor as a pair of twelve year olds who were raised watching “Beavis and Butthead” for twelve hours a day, but because it is a scientific fact that eating asparagus makes your pee smell funny.

It has to do with some sort of sulfur compound that is present in the asparagus along with healthy doses of folic acid, potassium, thiamin, fiber, and vitamins B6, A and C. There hasn’t been a ton of research on the subject, probably because there is no money in figuring out which harmless chemical in asparagus makes one’s urine smell objectionable (have you ever known anyone’s pee to smell good–I mean, really), and it isn’t exactly a burning question that needs answered. I’d much rather have organic chemists worrying about the effects of pesticides on human and animal neurology or something useful like that, than figuring out why asparagus tastes good but makes something go awry in the urinary tract.

But be that as it may, back to asparagus itself.

It is a member of the lily family, along with garlic, onions and leeks, and unlike most vegetable plants, is a perennial. One plants the crowns, or roots, in a specially prepared bed, and then mulches them and feeds and waters them for three years without harvesting a single shoot. Not one. Nope. None. Growing asparagus requires patience and willpower. Even more so than strawberries–you only have to wait a year to harvest them the first time. So anyone who grows asparagus gets tortured by having to watch lovely green shoots erupt from the soil, and climb toward the sky, then turn into a cloud of glorious lacy ferns without ever tasting one for three whole years.

That is the bad part of growing asparagus.

The good part is that once you plant a bed of it, and you let it establish a tidy mat of vigorous roots under those ferns for three years, you can harvest shoots by the tens of pounds for the next fifteen years. Yeah, that is right. If you can restrain yourself for three years, you get payoff for at least fifteen years. I say at least, because I know of some folks who have had the same patch of asparagus going for over twenty years.

That is pretty darned cool, in my book. Which is why, after we terrace our steeply inclined backyard into servicable garden space, I intend to plant an asparagus patch. I’m just going to interplant it with the flowers and decorative shrubbery–the ferns are quite lovely, and it is a well-established tradition in cottage gardening to mix together ornamental and edible plants. Besides, I like putting surprises in gardens, and what can be more surprising than walking along, admiring the water feature, then bending down and snapping off an asparagus stalk and munching it?

I find that asparagus is best cooked simply, and quickly. I know that the new fad for cooking it is roasting it, but I haven’t had good luck with it. So, generally, I simmer it in a tiny bit of salted water until it is barely tender, then either boil off the water or drain it. I melt butter in the pan, squeeze in lemon or lime juice, and sprinkle it with the zest of whichever citrus fruit I juiced, and give it a few good turns of the peppermill. I have been known to add lightly crushed pink peppercorns to the standard mixture, not only because they look quite pretty against the brilliant emerald stalks, but because the sweet flavor of them complements the asparagus quite well. A pinch of dried dill is nice as well, if you have some. Chive blossoms are nice, too, though Zak objects to them, as he isn’t enamored of the onion flavor.

There is a debate over whether the pencil-thin asparagus shoots are better or the finger-thick spears are superior. I think it depends on which texture you like and how much you enjoy peeling the bottom third of the stalk.

I prefer the tiny spears, because all you have to do is snap off a bit of the bottom end, and voila! They are ready to cook or eat out of hand. With the thicker spears, you have to either snap off a significant portion of the bottom because of toughness, or you have to snap off a smaller amount and peel the bottom third or so of the stalk.

That is a pain in the rear end, and I dislike doing it. And even peeled, I think that the rest of the more mature, larger asparagus is somewhat tough and stringy. It still tastes springtime fresh, but the texture is off. I tend to stick with the tiny asparagus for using in salads or cooking simply, and will sometimes use the thicker stuff to make cream of asparagus soup.

I make it sound like I am picky. That really isn’t the case. I will eat just about any fresh asparagus that I can get, and will do what I must to cook it properly.

We are about a third of the way through asparagus season around here, so we have probably several more weeks to gobble down countless pounds of the wee green shoots. As the supply dwindles, our appetites will probably be close to satiated; our palates will tire of the delicate green flavor sparked with the tang of lemon and smoothed with the velvet caress of butter, and will want for something new.

That is, until next spring, when once again, we will pounce upon any fresh asparagus we see and eat it until we feel as if we will burst in a glorious explosion of springtime goodness.


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  1. Mmm. I am currently gorging myself on strawberries (local strawberries with local cream – breakfast for the past 4 days!)

    For asparagus, I simmer for a short while, drain it, lay it in a shallow pan with fresh parmesan grated on top, and pop it under the broiler until the cheese melts. Then I may or may not dot it with butter, and eat it all!

    Next week – the year’s first peas!

    Comment by Amy — June 7, 2005 #

  2. Yummy! One of my most despised “holiday dishes” is asparagrass (as we call it in my family) that has been steamed or boiled until it is grayish-green and limp. No wonder so many people think they don’t like it!

    Comment by etherbish — June 8, 2005 #

  3. Oooh, Amy–that sounds like a great version of asparagus! I may have to try that one out.

    Ladi–the only thing worse than what you just described is canned asparagus, which was the only way I ate it through a large chunk of my childhood. Mushy, slimy, limp and bedgraggled asparagus is a crime against Mother Nature!

    Comment by Barbara Fisher — June 8, 2005 #

  4. Barbara – I like to use a very salty parmesan for this dish, and I usually make it with the slightly larger asparagus. The cheese can be overwhelming for more tender spears.

    Ahh, canned asparagus. My grandmother loved it – it’s so . . . weirdly salty. She also liked canned peas, and though I prefer fresh, they do have a comforting aspect to them.

    Comment by Amy — June 8, 2005 #

  5. Thicker asparagus is probably better for roasting, too. I will have to grab some and try your recipe–it sounds too delicious, Amy.

    I can’t really eat canned peas. The flavor makes my gag reflex go into play. Not pleasant at all.

    But then, I love them fresh and barely cooked or raw, so what do we really expect?

    Comment by Barbara Fisher — June 8, 2005 #

  6. Hi Barbara,
    There’s a type of bean here called petai. It’s very pungent, has a slight bitter taste to it. It’s an acquired taste and like asparagus, one’s pee will smell funny too. But, I like it; it has a more-ish effect on me, like the bitter gourd! Shirley

    Comment by Anonymous — June 9, 2005 #

  7. Hey, Shirley! It is always good to hear from you.

    That bean sounds interesting. I have never seen it around here–I wonder if anyone even tries to grow it here in the US? The amount of Asian vegetables that are available here in the US, many of which are even grown here is amazing. I just found out that a local organic farmer here in Athens grows a lot of Asian vegetables and sells them at the farmers’ market–including bitter melon!


    Speaking of which, we had chicken and bitter melon again last night. I thought of you, Shirley–in part because I always think of you when eating bitter melon because you describe it as “moreish,” which is a wonderful word and an apt description.

    I used a different kind of black beans in the dish last night and it gave it a deeper, darker, earthier flavor. I really liked them in there, but the colors got muddied up with them. The melon was really young, too, so quite bitter, so the stronger flavored black beans really balanced the dish.

    Zak was quite happy with it, and the two of us gobbled down the entire dish with great glee!

    Comment by Barbara Fisher — June 9, 2005 #

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