Alan Tangren: Support your local asparagus
Dear Alan: Isn’t asparagus supposed to be a spring vegetable? I see it in the market all the time now.
Alan: Lucky for us, the Sacramento-San Joaquin delta area is the center of asparagus production in California. Local asparagus should be easy to find and at its lowest price from March through the end of May.
The sad news is that local asparagus is becoming harder and harder to find.
Every year more and more asparagus is being imported from Mexico and Central America, where the season starts in January. In fact, California production decreased by over 60 percent between 2004 and 2014, mostly due to competition from imports.
Even though imported asparagus is cheaper than local, I always check the label to make sure I am getting the freshest possible California product. Besides supporting local growers, you will be getting the best possible quality.
As soon as it is harvested, asparagus loses natural sugars, flavor and Vitamin C, and it becomes tough and starts to decay; so the shorter the trip to market the better.
Asparagus harvest is very labor intensive. The spears pop out of the ground seemingly at random, and workers cut them one by one, just below the ground surface.
A single bed of mature asparagus plants can be harvested for a period of two months. During the heart of the season an asparagus spear can grow more than 3 inches a day, so daily passes over the same bed are necessary.
Shopping for asparagus
The asparagus spears that come to our markets can range from spindly to almost an inch in diameter. Although the stalks are green, the tips of the spears are tinted with purple.
Rarely do we find true purple asparagus, the spears darkly purple from top to bottom, but go for it if you can. It has a sweeter flavor than the green. Fresh white asparagus, prized in Europe, is rarely found here.
When shopping for asparagus, look for bunches with bright green color; the heads should be tight and compact. Check the butt ends and avoid those that are dried out.
Some careful produce managers display asparagus standing in water or on wet mats to help preserve freshness.
Use asparagus as soon as possible after buying. If you must store it, keep in the refrigerator, standing upright in a canning jar with a half inch or so of water in the bottom. Don’t cover it.
If you lay asparagus on its side in the vegetable drawer the spears will gradually curve from the force of gravity. The tips will deteriorate quickly if stored in a closed plastic bag.
To prepare asparagus for cooking, grasp each spear toward the end and snap it with both hands; it will break where the tender and tough meet. Save the tough ends for soup.
Or, for larger spears, cut off an inch from the bottom and peel them with a vegetable peeler. Lay each spear flat on your work surface and peel from just below the head end toward the butt.
You will soon learn the right angle of the blade to take off just the skin. Add the peels to vegetable stock.
Asparagus can be blanched laid out in lots of boiling salted water in a big shallow pan. Cook until barely tender to the point of a paring knife. Remove and lay out on a kitchen towel to cool.
Large stalks of peeled asparagus and smaller stalks of unpeeled should take no more than five or six minutes to cook.
Here’s an easy way to prepare asparagus ahead of time so all you need to do is reheat it.
Arrange boiled asparagus in a baking dish, all facing the same way. Grate on plenty of fresh Parmesan over the tips and drizzle the stalks with melted butter. Season with salt and pepper.
Place about six inches under a preheated broiler for a few minutes to melt the cheese, or bake at 450 degrees Fahrenheit in an oven for 10 minutes or so.
Chef Alan Tangren spent 22 years as a chef in the kitchens of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, eight of those years spent as the Chez Panisse forager. He teaches cooking classes and directs monthly Chef’s Tables at Tess’ Kitchen Store, 115 Mill St. in Grass Valley. Learn more at http://www.tesskitchenstore.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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