I saw that sign on a local Burgerville…”Asparagus – The Pointiest Vegetable”. At the time it made me giggle, but lately I’ve been a little overly excited about asparagus, so I thought I’d share.
A few years ago, someone in my family asked me to pickle some asparagus spears. Okay, I said, bring me some asparagus and lo, I shall render unto it a pickle form. What happened next was not pretty; my father stopped at a farmer’s market in Yakima on his way through, and brought me 45 pounds of asparagus to pickle. That’s a LOT of asparagus. A whole lot. 7 hours worth of work, actually. And the kicker? I don’t even like pickled asparagus.
Anyway, I decided when we moved to a larger property that we needed a permanent asparagus patch. Asparagus is a perennial plant which can produce spears for 25 years, so it’s a good investment. Drawback is that it’s at least 3 years before you can harvest it if you start it from seed, and 2 years before you can harvest from most transplanted crowns. I’ve heard that a 10 foot row of asparagus should yield 5 pounds of asparagus after the third year, though of course I haven’t had it long enough to verify that.
I ended up getting 25 asparagus crowns of a couple of varieties, one of which is the ubiquitous Martha Washington. I planted them out in the vegetable garden and hoped for the best. Well, at least several of them have sent up shoots, whoo! They look just like asparagus from the store. I’m hoping all of them come up, but I won’t know for a while yet if they’ll all survive. I may hit them with some nitrogen rich fertilizer in the meantime to promote vegetative growth.
I also started some asparagus from seed in my greenhouse. After a week of soaking on a paper towel in the house, they did absolutely nothing, so I gave up and planted them in peat pots and just assumed they wouldn’t do anything. Well, I was wrong! They’re sending up slender little tiny shootlets, which I will nurture along in the greenhouse until they’re big enough to transplant. Here I am presented with another issue that I hadn’t really considered; asparagus plants are dioecious, meaning they have male and female plants. Both genders produce flowers, but in the fall the female plants produce red berries which will drop and re-seed the asparagus bed, rendering it potentially crowded and weedy. Buying dormant crowns, you can usually get all male populations and never have to face that issue. Both genders of asparagus are edible, with the female producing more but thinner spears, and the male producing fewer but more robust spears.
In the fall, the asparagus left uncut will go sort of ferny, with flowers and more structure than we’re used to seeing in the spears. This is normal, in case anyone thinks they have mutant asparagus!
** A note on how to avoid the hard, woody ends of asparagus **
The easiest way to ensure that you only use the tender part of the asparagus is to grasp it near the base, and bend it. It will naturally snap at the point between the woody part and the tender, tasty part. Toss the woody ends into the compost heap, and work only with the tender bits!
* 1 lb asparagus spears
* Olive oil
* Fresh grated parmesano-reggiano cheese (or regular parmesan)
Heat oven to 400. Roll asparagus spears in olive oil to coat thoroughly, and arrange on a cookie sheet. Sprinkle with the grated cheese, and roast 10 minutes or until tender. Salt and pepper to taste if desired, and eat with your fingers!
Recipe from my friend Meg Safranek
* Asparagus, fresh
* Mustard seed
* Dill seed
* 2 cloves peeled garlic per pint, or 4 per quart
* Crushed red pepper flakes
* Lots of ice water and extra ice
* White vinegar (or use half Apple cider vinegar and half white)
* Rock Salt
* Cane Sugar
* Pickling Spice (remove the cloves)
One batch of Brine will cover: 6 quarts of spears plus 1 quart of chunks, or pints to total that much. Depending on how much asparagus you chop, you may need more than one batch of brine.
Prepare a large ice water bath in a tub or large bowl. Next to this, lay several clean towels for drying your asparagus.
Wash the asparagus thoroughly. Snap off the woody ends and discard as described above. Working with the tender portion of the spears, measure the depth of your jars and chop the asparagus spears to fit in the jar with at least 1/2″ left between the top of the asparagus and the jar lid. Keep the bits you chop off; they will pickle just as well as the spears, they just don’t look as cool.
Blanch the asparagus: Bring a pot of water to boil, preferably one with a collander insert like for cooking pasta. Plunge the asparagus into the boiling water and leave for exactly one minute, then remove from the boiling water and plunge immediately into ice water. Use lots of ice, and get it very cold immediately. This helps retain the crispiness. Remove the asparagus when completely cold, and allow to drain on clean towels until thoroughly dry.
Wash and sterilize canning jars by boiling 5 minutes or by running through the hottest setting on your dishwasher. To each clean jar add:
* 1/2 teaspoon mustard seed
* 1/2 teaspoon dill seed
* 2 cloves peeled garlic per pint, or 4 cloves per quart
* 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
For one batch of brine, bring 5 cups water, 1/2 cup rock salt, 1/2 cup cane sugar, 1 Tablespoon pickling spice (remove cloves), and 1 teaspoon Alum to a boil in a large saucepan. Boil for 5 minutes. Remove from heat, add 5 cups vinegar, and cool.
Pack the jars with asparagus. I usually pack spears point up. Be sure you have about 1/2″ headspace between the top of the spears and the lids. You can just fill jars with asparagus chunks any old way, but still leave 1/2″ headspace at the top.
Pour the cooled brine over the asparagus in the jars, covering the asparagus but leaving 1/2″ of headspace. Process 5 minutes in a boiling water bath.
Um, my garlic is blue.
Yeah, that happens. It’ll turn either blue or green sometimes in the pickling brine. It’s harmless.
Boiling Water What?
It’s a canning method. If this is your first time canning something, congratulations! In a nutshell, it means to bring a large pot of water to a boil, then place the hot, filled jars in the water bath. Bring back to a boil, and boil for 5 minutes. Remove the jars from the water, allow to cool overnight. The lids should vacuum seal down (test with your finger; if the lid “pops”, it didn’t seal). Once the seal is set, remove the outer bands and store without them.
If you want more information about canning, I recommend purchasing the Ball Blue Book of Preserving, as it’s a great guidebook. And there is lots of information at the Ball jar home site, Freshpreserving.com.