Monday, April 30, 2012

Roasted Asparagus With Lemon Garlic Sauce

Asparagus Season

Organic asparagus made it's first appearance at Seattle markets a few weeks ago.  If you're wondering what gives with the high price, it's partly because farmers on the east side of the state harvest first and truck it over the mountains to markets.  

Only a few farmers grow asparagus on this side of the Cascades.  Also, Canales farm (the farm that offers the most asparagus) transitioned from conventional farming to organic farming, and this process took three years before they were certified.  Also, alot of people don't realize that farmers pay a per-acre fee for organic certification, and they have to document accountability for organic produce (to the United States Department of Agriculture) from seed to harvest.  This is labor intensive and requires more hours of paperwork.  It's the kind of work that might put my Cooking Assistant to sleep.

The Cooking Assistant

If you're wondering about my  Cooking Assistant, his bark post resumes next week.  Finn is more than eager to share stories (but don't believe everything he says, he's prone to exaggeration) and he equally eager to get in a few naps, hang out with sister Chloe, and revisit a few books.

Favorite place to sneak a nap.

Asparagus--history, selection and care

Native to North Africa, asparagus dates back to the dinosaur days, when ferns were the dominant plants.   It was cultivated as early at 200 BC.  In Europe today most of the asparagus served in restaurants is white and not green.  White asparagus is cultivated in the dark so pigment doesn't form.   Most asparagus grown in the United States is the green variety. 

Michigan, California and Washington produce the most commercial asparagus.  It can be planted from seed or root.  Most farmers plant roots.  Asparagus takes three years of growing before farmers can harvest it.  They cut the stalks off at the base and the plant grows again the next year.  Growing asparagus can be tricky because asparagus requires a strong growing season for the plant to do well the next year.  

Much of the commercial production of asparagus in this country is for processed asparagus.  I can recall the only asparagus I had as a child came from a can.  That kind of experience with vegetables turns people away from things like asparagus.  The downside of fresh asparagus is that it can quickly turn rubbery, especially if you keep it in a plastic bag in the produce bin, like many so-called experts suggest.  Here are a few rules for asparagus:

1. Buy the freshest specimens you can because most tough fiber in the stalk occurs in the post-harvest stage.  Make sure the stalk is firm not rubbery.

2.  Look for tight  heads. Asparagus heads where flowers have opened, have started to go to seed and may be on the bitter side.

3. Buy spears all about the same size for even cooking.  Some people prefer narrow spears, but these are babies.  If you want the best flavor, stick with medium size spears.  These are more mature plants that have had time to develop the best flavor.

4 .  Keep it cold because when it warms to over 40F and if the stalks are out of water, the stems get tough.

5.  Store the stalks in the refrigerator, upright in a small amount of water, just like you would flowers.   This is so the stalks don't dry out. You could put a plastic bag over the stalks to insure they won't dry out, but whatever you do, use them within a day or two at most.  Use just enough water so all the ends of the stalks are covered. 

I never get tired of pairing different vegetables with citrus flavors.  My favorite is Meyer lemon, with a sweeter flavor, more juice and thin skins.  These are plentiful in California but organic versions in Washington are at least twice the price you'd pay at California farmers' market.   

I envy the sun lovers in Arizona who grow these trees in their own yards.

Don't be a tightwad

When you find asparagus at drop dead prices, the chances are this asparagus has been sitting around too long.  Cook it you'll probably end up with tough fibery stalks.  I'm not saying don't pay a low price, but if you know what it takes to grow good asparagus and you see a low price, think about how old the asparagus might be and how eager the store manager might be to get rid of it.

Also, old vegetables also don't have the nutrients that very fresh vegetables offer because some nutrients like vitamin C disappear as the vegetable ages.  For example, spinach can lose as much as 50 percent of vitamin C in just two days!

Instead, why not think of asparagus as a treat?

Asparagus Nutrition

Nutritionally asparagus contains vitamins, A, C, E , K and B vitamins, including folate.  Asparagus also offers potassium, manganese, selenium, zine and fiber that helps regulate blood sugar.

Consider the balance of five flavors when preparing it--sweet, salty, sour, spicy and pungent.  I like to add fresh garlic, but when I'm out, I use garlic powder from Rent's Due Ranch, which I unapologetically horde.

This is garlic drying at Blue Heron Farm last fall.

I found this garlic at the Whidbey Island Coupeville Farmers Market.

When you're ready to use asparagus, snap the ends off.  If you grasp the very end of the stalk and bend it, it will break in just the right place.  We call the ends, the bones.  

Finn and Chloe are crazy about asparagus bones.

Just a little bit of oil and a bit of heat and asparagus spears turn a beautiful shade of green.  Another option is grilling them in a basket.

Here's one of my favorite simple recipes. I use medium-size stalks and was actually considering blending a bit of rhubarb in since the season has just begun for rhubarb also.   (No rhubarb for the hounds, however because it's toxic for them.)

Roasted Asparagus with Lemon-Garlic Sauce
(Serves 4)
This recipe is adapted from The Northwest Vegetarian Cookbook.  It's often the first recipe I make with asparagus in the spring.

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 fresh lemon, juice and zest (the outer peel, grated before juicing)
1 tablespoon  hot peppers (optional)
1 teaspoon honey
1/4 teaspoon garlic powder or a few fresh cloves of garlic, pressed
Sea salt to taste
2 pounds asparagus

1.  Preheat oven to 350F.  Snap the ends off the asparagus stalks and lay the stalks in a shallow baking dish.  Drizzle  oil over the asparagus.

2. Roast asparagus for 20 to 25 minutes.  Stir occasionally to distribute oil over asparagus.

3. Blend the garlic with lemon juice and zest, pepper sauce, honey, and salt.  Mix well. Spoon the sauce over the asparagus when it is nearly done. Return to oven for 5 minutes.  When the asparagus is fork-tender remove from the oven.

4.  Serve warm or let cool and serve over a spring salad.

The Cooking Assistant will cut his nap short for a chance to eat a stalk of asparagus.

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