Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Gardeners' Holidays 2015: The Age of Asparagus

Apologies to all for being a bit late with this Gardeners' Holiday post. Technically, the Age of Asparagus holiday falls on May 1, the cross-quarter day, but that's also May Day, which my Morris dance team celebrates by dancing from the crack of dawn until mid-afternoon, and drinking together after that. So by the time we made it home, I was so tired that I'd forgotten all about the blog.

Fortunately, our asparagus has not been too tired to produce for us throughout the past week. In fact, after getting off to a sluggish start in April, it came into its own right around the start of May, sending up spears so fast that we're picking new ones every day, sometimes twice a day. Once or twice, I've snapped off the tallest spears in the morning and passed over two or three others because they were too short...only to pass by the bed again in the late afternoon and see that those same spears have now shot up higher than the ones I picked in the morning.

Although the asparagus is growing fast, we still don't have a huge volume of it, because we just don't have that many plants. So the amount we pick in a single day usually isn't enough for a meal. Simply leaving the spears in the bed longer isn't an option, because left to their own devices, they will branch out into big fronds no longer suitable for cooking. In fact, some of the spears we didn't get to fast enough—or considered too small to be worth picking—have already gone to fern. (After a few weeks, we'll need to stop picking the spears and let them all turn into ferns, so they can spend the rest of the year gathering nourishment for the roots to produce next year's crop.)

To keep the asparagus fresh until we have enough to use, we harvest the spears not by cutting them off at ground level, but by snapping them off at their natural breaking point, leaving the ends in the ground. Then we stick the broken spears into a jar with a bit of water at the bottom and store them in the fridge. This keeps them firm and green until we're ready to turn them into a meal.

And turn it into meals we have. One of the cookbooks on our shelf, Easy Vegetarian Dinners from Better Homes and Gardens, contains several recipes that call for asparagus, and this is the only time of year we really get the chance to make them. So we've picked a couple of our favorites and enjoyed them multiple times in the past couple of weeks. The first, appearing in the "Bravo Beans and Grains" section, is Polenta with Mushrooms and Asparagus. The hardest part of this recipe is actually making the polenta; once that's done, you just keep it warm while you sauté some chopped onion in a pan. As soon as it's tender, toss in the sliced mushrooms and asparagus with some minced garlic, cook it a few minutes more, and stir in a little white wine and salt. Then ladle that over the polenta and top it with some toasted chopped nuts and a bit of Parmesan for a simple, elegant meal.

Good as this recipe is, it's a bit time-consuming. On Friday, after returning from our Morris-dancing adventures, we didn't want to wait for the polenta, so instead we cooked up a pound of gnocchi from Aldi and tossed that with the asparagus-mushroom mixture instead. We quickly discovered that we like this version even better than the original. The tender texture of the gnocchi makes a wonderful foil for the tender-crispness of the veggies, and the little potato pillows soak up the flavor of the sauce much more effectively than the polenta. I think we will definitely have to pick up some more gnocchi at the earliest opportunity so we can make this recipe at least once more before asparagus season ends.

The other asparagus recipe we've been eating lots of is Roasted Asparagus with New Potatoes, from the "Bumper Crop" section of the cookbook. Last month, we actually tried this for the first time with real new potatoes, since we picked up a bag of little fingerling potatoes as a splurge on a recent trip to Trader Joe's. These tiny potatoes can be roasted whole, side by side with the asparagus, drizzled with a little olive oil and salt, and they'll come out tender in under 15 minutes. The recipe says to stir in a bit of fresh rosemary and pepper, then garnish with toasted pine nuts and Parmesan and call it a meal—but we've taken to adding the extra step of dumping the whole mess into a pan and cooking it up with a couple of beaten eggs for a bit of additional protein. This makeshift frittata is both hearty enough and flavorful enough to make an all-around satisfying meal. And while it's particularly delicious with those buttery little fingerling potatoes, if you don't happen to have any, you can just dice plain old baking potatoes into chunks and it'll be nearly as good.

The other crop that's at its height right now is the rhubarb. Last year around this time, the four plants started sending up long flower spikes, which looked fascinating, but seemed to slow their production somewhat as they diverted energy from leaf and stalk production to the important business of germination. (Kind of like human adolescence, when the reproductive urge becomes so overpowering that it's hard to concentrate on anything else.) So this year, we've been ruthless about seeking out and snipping off those flower stalks before they get too tall, and the plants have rewarded us by developing into massive bushes of greenery. This week, we harvested the first crop of the year and turned it into Skillet Chicken and Rhubarb for last night's dinner—and there's still plenty out there to be enjoyed in the form of pies, crisps, and crumbles.

For summer is a-coming in, and winter's gone away, o!
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