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Blog : Spargel Time Blog : Spargel Time

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Spargel Time

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Asparagus on Silver Dish  600x350
Without fail at this hopeful time of year, though my father is passed, I can still hear his joyous but gruffly-muffly pronouncements in Bavarian German (to himself, alone in the back garden), Shpah-guuhl, Shpah-guuhl!  I knew that meant we would soon be eating fresh green or white asparagus often, straight through the end of May when the prehistoric looking vegetable disappeared both from the market, and from dad's language of puttering.

As vegetables go, asparagus is rather mysterious in form and habit, with a long and colourful history as a purported natural medicine and aphrodisiac.  The asparagus plant sends the edible bits up through the soil as green shoots, which are cut at ground-level then stored and shipped very cold.  White asparagus are harvested below-ground, where towering purpose-built mounds of dirt cover the emerging shoots, keeping them from the transformative greening of the sun. 

This all seems to happen rather quickly. Unlike most fruits and vegetables, the hard labour of the asparagus plant happens invisibly, primarily underground and out of sight until they shoot up, literally, leaving us happily but suddenly side-swiped by a culinary spring; reeling with the possibilities of the long and colourful market garden season ahead.

Asparagus is distinctive in taste and aroma. One either loves its uber-herbaceous, sulphury, metallic notes or one hates them.  And those of us who love asparagus, appreciate it nearly naked, bathed only briefly in salted water, then dressed oh-so-lightly in little more than sweet butter or extraordinary quality extra virgin organic olive oil.

When Canadian Chef Chuck Hughes was passing through Vancouver on his Iron Chef America Win Tour three years ago, he spent the afternoon with us at Templeton Culinary Arts in East Vancouver, sharing his secret to asparagus perfection and hosting/judging an Iron Chef Templeton competition (team C@H placed second).  We've drawn upon his asparagus lesson often, and today we share it gladly.

CH Chef Chuck Hughes TCA 600w

1. Buy the freshest, firmest, thin-to-medium stalked asparagus (pencil width is perfect; too skinny can mean too late in the season) you can find from your local farmer's market or green grocer. Store upright in the fridge, unwrapped, in an half-inch or so of water.  Buy local whenever you can.  BC farmers produce about 160,000 kilos of asparagus every year and for the most part they sell it through farm stands, independent grocers and at farmer's markets. See below for sources.

2. Break the tough bit from the blunt end of each stalk, by bending it gently until it snaps on its own, most-often within an inch of the blunt end.  Discard the tough end bits. Once the entire bundle is snapped, line-up the long stalks with ends in parallel and cut evenly to tidy them up. Tip: reputable growers harvest asparagus with very little waste - that is, minimal tough end presenting. You don't want to be spending $6.99 a pound for compost, so watch for green ends.

Asparagus Prep 600w

3. Using a very sharp small kife or y-peeler, remove any overtly spikey bits along the stalk. We tend to overlook this most often, as fresh young asparagus isn't woody, plus we like the architecture of the intact stalk.  Up to you!

4. In a shallow saute pan, boil only enough salted water* to cover a single layer of asparagus by half.   Lay a single layer of asparagus in the pan of boiling water and roll gently just until al dente and brilliantly bright green.  *Salt the water to the point where it tastes of the the sea, but no more.

5. Gently turn the cooked asparagus into a sieve or collander over the sink and serve immediately as below, or plunge into an icewater bath (blanch) and then drain to serve cold or to refrigerate and re-heat later.

6. To serve immediately, place hot (shake gently to dry in its own heat) asparagus on a heated serving plate and drizzle with gorgeous finishing-quality olive oil  like Domenica Fiore XVOO or let a pat of sweet butter melt overtop.  Garnish if you like with a curl or two of aged peccorino, a sprinkling of lemon zest, or a few grinds of DM Smoked Peppercorn Medley.  Chef Hughes was adamant that one not add salt after cooking, as the salted water seeps gently/perfectly/just-enoughly into the flesh during poaching.

Enjoy as a side, or as a meal in itself, paired with a bright and herbaceous Sauvignon Blanc. If you prefer red wine, some Spanish Tempranillos are green-floral and herb-forward enough for asparagus.   Bliss! Perfection! Spring on a Plate! 

Okanagan Asparagus in Armstrong grows about 40 acres of green asparagus and sells it at their farm gate store and in Choices Markets in the Lower Mainland. They are earlier to market than some growers in cooler climates, and co-owner Jackie Jeppesen told us to watch for their beautiful hand-picked asparagus starting April 24th or thereabouts this year.  Spring started off warm but then cooled off again recently.  The Jeppesens also grow strawberries and sweet corn.

Sutcliffe Farms in Creston is one of BC's largest asparagus growers, with 100 acres or so under cultivation. Doug Sutcliffe expects his asparagus varieties to hit regional markets later in May - lucky for us, extending the season.  In the Lower Mainland, look for Sutcliffe Farms asparagus at Thrifty Foods, in the West Kootenays at Ferraro Foods in Trail and Rossland, and at various produce stands in all the usual places in the Okanagan/Kootenays.

Pedrosa's Asparagus Farm in Cowichan Bay on Vancouver Island grows asparagus for sale at their farm gate store and also for regional restaurants and small markets served by a specialty distributor.  Pedrosa's ships-fresh-by-courier all over BC, to loyal customers during the season. Contact the farm for a list of local purveyors.

And the last word goes to sweet butter...
The best butter I've tasted since shaking some up in a jar as a child, comes from The Farm House in the Fraser Valley.  Farm House butter, natural cheeses (their quark is otherworldly) and other artisanal products are available online, at their farm shop, at select Lower Mainland retailers and farmers' markets. See website.

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