All About Asparagus
Updated: Jan 3, 2022
Asparagus Around the World Asparagus has always been a symbol of spring around the globe. One of my fondest memories of asparagus took place in Tuscany, Italy, near the village of Tavernelle Val di Pesa. This quaint and picturesque area is 25 km south of Florence, and their cuisine features regionally specific and seasonal ingredients. I was out for a walk one night wandering down one of the rural dirt roads and heard a rustling in the bushes. I’d heard stories of wild boar in the region, and I have to say my mind immediately imagined one of the those jumping out at me. What emerged instead were two elderly couples, a far cry from a pack of wild boar. Now I definitely don’t speak Italian, and they did not speak a word of English, but I somehow managed to inquire as to what they were collecting by pointing at the basket one of the women held. She pulled back a dish cloth to reveal their prize: skinnier but immediately recognizable asparagus. One of the men smiled and said “Asparagi!”. The two couples were out foraging for wild asparagus. I remember being struck by how connected to the land these people were, and how food played such a central role in their culture.
"I remember being struck by how connected to the land these people were, and how food played such a central role in their culture."
Another reminder of the seasonality of asparagus took place on a road trip my family took through Europe. While we were in rural Germany, everywhere we went we kept seeing large hand painted signs saying “spargel”. We were staying in a small town called Garmisch-Partenkirchen (envision cuckoo clocks and quintessential German architecture in the Bavarian alps) when overnight, the street in front of our lodgings turned into a farmers’ market. Now, I was thrilled to see this, but my dad was a bit less so. With the pop-up market, we could no longer park our van in front of the hotel to load up. While the rest of the family lugged suitcases down an alternate route to the parked van, I snuck off into the market. A large sign caught my eye, once again: “spargel”. Finally, I could find out what this word meant! What I found at this vendor was tables laden with the biggest asparagus I had ever seen. “Spargel” meant asparagus and it was flourishing and in peak season. Once again, I was privy to how the cuisine of this region featured seasonality and highlighted their local ingredients.
Asparagus in Alberta
When it comes to eating local in our own province, Alberta has its own beautiful asparagus. Most of what I know about asparagus is thanks to the Edgar family, Albertan asparagus farmers. Interestingly enough, asparagus is actually a perennial plant that returns each year and is a part of the lily family. It is a fairly labour intensive crop that does not produce a viable yield until its fourth or fifth year of growing. Asparagus season is short and sweet. It is some of the first fresh produce to become available (in May) and only lasts for approximately six weeks. When it comes to prepping this spring vegetable, most of us are used to having to snap off the woody ends of the asparagus we purchase from the grocery store. This is because most asparagus harvested in other countries is often cut below ground, resulting in more product weight but having less of an edible yield. The stalks from Edgar Farms do not need to be trimmed due to it being picked by hand and above ground. The thickness of the stalk doesn’t matter. Initially I thought the thickest asparagus spears would be very woody, but they are absolutely edible and equally tender. The purple tip of an asparagus spear indicates there is a high sugar content, and therefore a sweet product. Edgar Farms retain this natural sweetness through an ingenious invention of theirs, a machine that cold shocks the asparagus in super chilled water (you would be hard pressed to leave your finger in the frigid water for more than a couple of seconds). This cold shock prevents the sugar in the asparagus from converting to starch. Make sure to get your asparagus into the fridge as soon as possible when you bring it home, and to maintain its freshness you can leave it sitting in a shallow bath (1” deep) of water in the fridge. Before using my asparagus, I fill the kitchen sink with very cold water and add the asparagus. This crisps it up nicely and removes any silt. You can tell when asparagus was harvested after heavy rain, as it can be a bit sandy. Edgar Farms says asparagus will keep fresh in the fridge for one week. For more about local Albertan asparagus, check out Edgar Farms. They share some of their family recipes and I highly recommend considering a visit to their on-farm Country Store. Edgar Farms are a part of the Innisfail Growers cohort, so their produce can be found at places like the Calgary Farmers’ Market. For the first time ever, I even saw Safeway carrying Edgar asparagus! It is fantastic to see large grocery chains carrying local products. White and purple asparagus varieties should also be mentioned! The purple variation is simply a different colour of asparagus and grown in the same method as the green. The white asparagus, however, is grown in the absence of sunlight (underground). Without sunlight, the vegetable is not able to produce chlorophyll, which is what gives vegetables their green colour. White and purple/green varieties should be cooked separately, as the white tends to be a bit woodier. Highlight the purple variety in raw preparations, as it does turn green once cooked.
So, What to Do with Fresh Asparagus? Looking for some inspiration on what to do with your fresh asparagus? Asparagus is quite adaptable to a variety of world cuisines and ingredients. It holds up well to flavours like sweet miso in Japanese recipes and is just as much the star paired with a velvety and classic French hollandaise sauce. The following ideas and recipes prove just how versatile this spring vegetable can be…
Shaved fresh asparagus is mild and sweet, and has a nice crunchy texture in salads. The delicate ribbons hold up well to a variety of different dressing, but should be eaten right after being dressed. Blanched asparagus is also an intriguing and bright addition to potato salads. Try this Asian salad dressing with asparagus ribbons. It is vegan (and made to feel creamy by the addition of tofu) and has a light sweet taste from the Asian pear and the miso.
Anything with Eggs Asparagus and eggs are a perfect match. The rich yolk acts as a velvety contrast to the delicate asparagus. The spring vegetable makes an excellent addition to omelets and frittatas. Another classic pairing is crumbling or grating hard-boiled egg yolk onto asparagus, classically called a “mimosa” garnish. You can take some Asian inspiration and pair asparagus with salty shoyu eggs. These are the hardboiled eggs that are marinated in a soy sauce mixture and commonly served with ramen. The version below combines the same umami taste but uses beet juice for sweetness and white shoyu to maintain the bright colour. If you cannot find white shoyu you can still use regular soy but it will darken the appearance. You can order it from here, an exotic Asian ingredient vendor on Granville Island in Vancouver. These eggs pair nicely with the Miso Asian Pear Dressing above. I’ve experimented a lot with trying to get the “perfectly” cooked shoyu egg. I like the whites to be firmly set but the yolks to still be jammy. Try this recipe and feel free to experiment with the cook time should you prefer your eggs either way.
Other ideas... Deep-fry it… Frying asparagus yields sweet, green spears made even crunchier by a thin and crispy tempura batter or you can try breading it too. Roast it… Asparagus roasts up nicely in a hot oven (400F for 15-20 min) and makes for a quick accompaniment to main dishes. Stir-fry it… Add cut asparagus to your favourite stir-fry recipes. It adds crunch, a vibrant colour, and something a little different to your stir-fries. Bake it… Top pizzas with it, and try pairing it with things like parmesan, ricotta, and goat cheese. Add it to tarts, atop a crispy phyllo pastry crust. Asparagus is also a great addition to stud into focaccia bread before baking.
Pickle it… Pickling is always a favourite way to preserve ingredients of the moment and pickled asparagus is a gem to find in the pantry. It makes for a great accompaniment to charcuterie boards, tossed into potato salads, or used to garnish a bloody mary.
Steam it… Perhaps one of the simplest ways to cook asparagus, steaming (for 5-10 min) is the best way to retain nutrients in vegetables.
Blanch it… The other day I blanched some asparagus and used it to dip into cheese fondue. Add asparagus to salted boiling water until fork tender (the ultimate test will always be pulling out a piece and tasting it), but don’t forget to shock it in an ice bath! This stops the cooking process and keeps your veggies bright and green. Blanched asparagus also makes a vibrant addition to pasta or gnocchi dishes and the woody stems can be used to infuse cream to make pasta sauce with.
Sauté it… Sautéing the vegetable with some good quality butter is an excellent way to keep it simple.
Asparagus will always represent spring to me. Take advantage of this vibrant seasonal ingredient and try incorporating it into your favourite recipes, or try some of the recipes mentioned above. Please comment and tell me your favourite way to enjoy asparagus. And once again, if you are local to Alberta, consider visiting Edgar Farms yourself!