According to Miss Manners, asparagus is one of the few foods considered acceptable to eat with one’s hands. This exception originated from when people ate using real silver utensils, which were stained by the enzymes in asparagus.
But even with this exception, asparagus can still be tricky in front of most company. Suppose those you’re dining with don’t know about the asparagus exception. Should you risk offending them? Do you cut the spears to pieces with your knife and fork, even though it’s not necessary?
Ancient Roman bon vivant Marcus Apicus, the author of the oldest known surviving cookbook in the world, De Re Culinaria, has his own way around this issue of decorum. He suggests pounding asparagus with pepper, lovage, coriander, savory, onion, wine, olive oil, eggs and a fermented fish sauce called garum. This paste is then baked, and definitely not appropriate to eat using your fingers.
I mention all of this because I’m standing at the front end of asparagus season in the biggest asparagus patch I’ve ever seen. At first it looks like an empty brown field with scattered straw and patches of clover. As soon as you see a shoot, you see a group. It’s like mushroom hunting, especially since they look like morels, each with its own tilt and gnomish shape. Most of the shoots have a surprisingly wide girth.
“They’re a bit stogie early on,” says local farmer Steve Dagger, using a noun as an adjective in a way Miss Manners may not approve. But the word play works. They do look like cigars. Later on the shoots will become more slender and proportional.
Miss Manners, meanwhile, would have turned beet-red if she’d heard what Steve’s partner Jane Kile has to say about asparagus growth.
“It will grow 6 inches in a day if it’s warm enough,” she says.
“There’s a formula for calculating how fast it will grow, as a relationship to average daily temperatures,” adds Steve. “Some agriculture scientists figured it out to help growers plan their harvests. Something about a coefficient, and a constant gets subtracted…”
“Today it probably only grew like a tenth of an inch,” says Jane, referring to the springtime chill that started the night before and lingered all day.
Therein lies the essential difficulty in growing asparagus commercially in this climate. The warm days lure the shoots upward, and the cold nights nip the tips, expanding the water inside and rupturing the cell walls, turning the spears to mush. But in Dixon, where Jane and Steve live and work on Pomme de Terre Farm, they experience one of the warmest climates in the state, and the best chance of growing a crop.
Jane planted the asparagus 11 years ago, when she was running a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture). When you are obligated to deliver a weekly supply of veggies, a crop of asparagus is a morale-boosting way to keep your customers happy during the early, lean months. She planted an all-male hybrid variety of asparagus called Jersey Knights.
“Back when we had the CSA going,” she recalls, “the clients would come help on the farm. Mostly women came, and some of the men were complaining that there was ‘too much of a female vibe around here.’ So we planted a field of male asparagus to change that.”
The CSA is long gone, and now they market their asparagus, along with the rest of their produce, via the Western Montana Growers Cooperative, which supplies wholesale grocery accounts with produce from small farmers. For the next five weeks, you can get their asparagus at Missoula restaurants like the Shack and Catalyst.
Asparagus patches will produce for about 18 years before they start to peter out. You have to wait three years after planting before the first harvest. After a five-week harvest, you have to stop and let the shoots grow into plants, which supply the roots with enough energy to make it through the winter.
“They grow up into fern-like trees that hang out all summer,” says Jane. “It’s cool under them, and the dogs love it.”
As for their favorite way of eating asparagus, Jane likes a cooked asparagus salad with a sesame/soy/ginger sauce.
“I like it in soup,” says Steve, “though it’s kind of pedestrian.”
I tried Steve’s soup recipe with a few modifications.
Peel a head of garlic and oven-roast the cloves at 350 degrees until completely soft. Meanwhile, cut the woody bases off of 1 1/2 pounds of fresh asparagus, break off the tips, and cut the remaining stalks into 1-inch pieces. Heat 4 tablespoons butter in a pan, sauté two medium leeks, chopped, until tender. Add the asparagus stalks, garlic and enough chicken stock to cover them. Cook until stalks are tender. In another pan, boil the tips for five minutes.
Puree the asparagus/garlic mixture, return to the pan, add 3 more cups of stock, bring to a simmer, then remove from heat. Season with salt and pepper, add the boiled tips, and stir in 3 tablespoons of lemon juice, and two raw cloves of garlic, minced.
There was nothing pedestrian about this soup. In fact, I bet Miss Manners would slurp it down so fast it would run down her chin.
Ask Chef Boy Ari: Extracting the truth
Q: Last week I made an open call for help with the case of Limonhead, a reader who asked how to reduce the number of days in which lemons must be soaked in vodka in order to make limoncello.
Well, none other than the Indy’s own George Ochenski chimed in with some key advice. I should mention that George might even be more Chef Boy Ari (noun as adjective, see above) than I am—the man is not only cooking, preserving, hunting and fishing all the time, but he’s been doing it longer than I’ve even had teeth!
So here’s Ochenski’s letter (with crass remarks about spineless Democrats, brainless Republicans and the lack of snow on his birthday tactfully removed).
A: Dear Chef Boy Ari,
As you know, I do herbal tinctures and have for years—Reishi mushrooms, astragalus, lomatium, arnica, garlic, ginseng, etc. Basically, you shred the stuff and put it in either straight alcohol if you’re looking for alcohol-soluble stuff or a mix of alcohol and water to bring out the water-soluble stuff, too. Vodka is about half water, half alcohol if it’s 100 proof. I use pure grain alcohol most of the time (Everclear, my dear).
If what they’re trying to extract is the essential oil from the skin of the lemon—which is what I’m betting your reader is after—it’s the alcohol that dissolves it. Most tincture books recommend six weeks minimum for the process. Nothing ever goes bad because it’s in alcohol. They also suggest gently swishing it around to keep things moving on the solution scene.
So, maybe 10 days is okay, but I’m thinking they should go for the full 40.
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