6 May 2020

Asparagus, One of Spring’s Greatest Treats

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Murray Herrick
Looking Down Farm

The arrival of spring means that asparagus season is not far off. Asparagus can be found in supermarkets year-round but, while not a bad product, it pales in comparison to the quality of locally grown asparagus. The main reason why locally grown asparagus is better is simply freshness. Supermarket asparagus is generally already several days old before it reaches the store shelves. Locally grown asparagus from Maine’s farmers markets and farm stands is often harvested the same day it is sold. That is important because, much like corn, asparagus begins to convert its natural sugars to starch. The fresher it is, the higher the quality.

There are three types of fresh asparagus that you might find at farmers markets or farm stands. Traditional green, purple or white. White asparagus is simply regular asparagus that is grown in the absence of light, most commonly grown under black plastic. While not common here, white asparagus is considered a delicacy in much of Europe. All three colors of asparagus can be used interchangeably in recipes.

Choosing the best asparagus is very simple. Look for asparagus that is firm and smooth with a rich color. A dull color or stalks that appear wrinkled or dried out are indications that it is past its prime. Look for asparagus tips that are tightly closed.

If necessary, it is simple to store asparagus for a few days. Don’t wash the asparagus before serving, wait till just before using to wash. Trim of about ½ inch from the bottom of the stalks. Wrap the cut ends with a damp paper towel. Seal in a plastic bag or other storage container and refrigerate.

Many different cooking methods work very well with asparagus. Boiling, steaming, roasting, sautéing and grilling are just a few ways to cook it. Asparagus is also delicious raw. Sliced or shaved thinly and dressed simply with olive oil, lemon, salt and pepper, it makes a simple and delicious salad.

However you choose to use asparagus, before cooking you will want to remove the tough fibrous ends of the stalks. The best way to do this is to line up the asparagus on a cutting board and trim where the color of the stalks changes from a dark green to a lighter shade of green and white.

Here are some recipes that feature asparagus:

Creamy Asparagus Soup

2 Tbsp. olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
4-6 cloves garlic, chopped
2 lbs. asparagus, tough ends removed, chopped
½ tsp. dried oregano, crumbled
½ tsp. dried thyme, crumbled
½ C. white wine
3 C. chicken broth
½ C. grated Parmesan cheese
1 C. cream
2 Tbsp. minced chives

Heat the oil in a large pot over medium-high heat. Add the onion, and saute until the onion has softened. Add the garlic and saute for 1-2 minutes more. Add the asparagus, oregano and thyme. Season with salt and pepper and saute for another minute or two. Add the wine and cook, stirring often, until the wine has reduced by ¾. Add the chicken broth. Cover, reduce the heat to low and simmer until the asparagus is very tender, about 15-20 minutes. Stir in the Parmesan cheese.

Puree the soup until smooth with an immersion blender or, in batches if necessary, in a blender or food processor. Return the pureed soup to the heat and stir in the cream and chives. Stir until well blended and hot.

Serves 4-6

Shrimp and Asparagus Risotto

3 C. chicken broth
1 Tbsp. olive oil
1 medium onion, minced
8 oz. mushrooms, sliced
2-3 cloves garlic, crushed
1 ½ C. arborio rice
½ C. white wine
1 bunch asparagus, tough ends removed, thinly sliced
¾ lb. shrimp, peeled and deveined
¼ C. grated Parmesan cheese
3 Tbsp. minced fresh parsley
2 Tbsp. minced fresh chives
2 Tbsp. butter

Place the chicken broth in a small saucepan and bring to a simmer.

Heat the olive oil in a large pot over medium-high heat. Add the onion and saute until softened. Add the mushrooms. Season generously with salt and pepper and saute until the mushrooms are lightly browned and the liquid they give off has evaporated. Add the garlic and saute for another 1-2 minutes. Add the rice. Stir for a minute or two to lightly toast the rice and get it well blended with the other ingredients. Add the wine and stir until the wine has been absorbed by the rice. Reduce the heat to medium and add ½ cup of chicken broth. Stir until the broth has been almost absorbed into the rice. Continue to add the chicken broth, ½ cup at a time. Always stirring until the broth has been absorbed by the rice before adding the next ½ cup of broth. When about half of the chicken broth has been added to the rice, add the asparagus and continue to add chicken broth as before. With the next to last addition of chicken broth, add the shrimp. When the last addition of broth has been mostly absorbed by the rice, stir in the remaining ingredients. Stir until the butter has melted into the risotto. Taste and stir in salt and pepper if needed.

The finished risotto should have a creamy consistency. Serve immediately.

Serves 4-6

Asparagus Pesto

This pesto can be used in pretty much any way you would use traditional basil pesto. It is great with pasta or used as a sauce for meat, fish or poultry. It is delicious on a baked potato and makes a nice dip.

1 lb. asparagus, tough ends trimmed off, cut into 2 inch pieces
½ C. olive oil
⅓ C. grated Parmesan cheese
¼ C. chopped pecans or walnuts
2 scallions, chopped
3-4 cloves garlic
juice of ½ lemon
½ tsp. black pepper

Blanch the asparagus in a pot of boiling salted water for about 3-4 minutes, or until tender. Drain well. Place the asparagus on a clean kitchen towel and pat dry and allow to cool. Place the cooled asparagus and the other ingredients in the bowl of a food processor. Process until smooth. Taste the pesto and stir in salt to taste. If you prefer a looser textured pesto, process in a little more olive oil.

Makes about 2 ½ cups.