Come springtime, the aliens landed. Or should I say, emerged — pointing fingers of dull green that probed their way up through the earth, aiming skyward.
The asparagus had their own ZIP code in a large, unfenced, somewhat rectangularly shaped patch of yard near an extensive northern windbreak of lilac bushes. They shot up like spikes about the same time as the morel mushrooms, around when the tiny curled leaves of the elm trees achieved squirrel ear-sized status.
I was warned away: “Don’t stomp around over there.” This was difficult, but necessary. Despite their disturbing appearance, the asparagus spears also held chameleon-like properties rendering some of them nearly invisible. And keeping me from a favorite place. My childhood near the lilacs had been solidified for some time, from the snowdrifts built up there that I crunched on top of in winter to those intoxicating lilac blossoms that needed my sniffing attention in spring. And my banishment became all the more frustrating as I watched my parents’ repeated trips back and forth to the area — complete with sharp knives and colanders — to collect their precious crop.
Asparagus season seemed to last an eternity, or at least long enough to have the aromatic call to inhale lilacs be a potential spear-stomping threat. Once the season ended, the remains of the crop lie buried in reused bread sacks in the deep freeze, and the asparagus patch became much more inviting, turning to a thatch of soft feathery ferns with red berry seeds I used for Barbie “apples.”
Still, I resented our free-range asparagus a little, and I certainly didn’t eat it. For years the joke at the table was, “Some asparagus, Beck?” as a steaming bowl of the stuff was lifted in my direction with a smirk. My mother generally always cooked asparagus the same way — poached and served in its cooking liquid, limp and occasionally (I hate to say it) slimy.
One day, after many years of my established disdain for asparagus, the offer was met with a “Sure,” and mouths fell open, including mine that had, at last, developed a taste for the tasty spears.
Over the years, I’ve eaten tender asparagus bundled up with bacon “bow-ties,” blanched spears wrapped in salty prosciutto ham and raw pegs of it encircled with sticky rice and seaweed.
With its sweet, mild, almost pea-like flavor, sturdy texture and spring symbolism, its appearance and versatility is a welcome part (now) of any meal, lending its tender spears to savory bread pudding, frittatas or salads or blending it fine to flavor creamy soup. But you really don’t have to do much to asparagus. If it’s simply roasted (or grilled), slick with olive oil, sprinkled with salt and pepper and maybe finished with a squeeze of fresh lemon, asparagus will be one of the better things you have eaten all week.
The fact that asparagus and morel seasons coincide has them even featured together in recipes, such as a Ragout of Morels and Asparagus, featured in the book “Prairie Home Cooking” by Judith M. Fertig (The Harvard Common Press; 1999), who writes of her Ohio grandmother also making creamed asparagus and mushrooms, buying both from a local market gardener who sold them from a horse-drawn cart.
The name and history of asparagus has lengthy roots, originally traced to the Persian word “aspar-ag” meaning “sprout,” according to “The Oxford Companion to Food,” edited by Alan Davidson (Ox-ford University Press: 1999). Over the years it was called “sperage” or “sparagus” or even “sparrow grass,” and records of it being cultivated go back to the Roman Empire, where Pliny the Elder also wrote of its medicinal properties, in part supported by the strong odor in the urine of those who consumed it.
For many years, it was considered pricey due to its specifically territorial way of being grown. An asparagus bed could not be used for any other crop and took a couple of years to bear fruit. Now widely cultivated and available pretty much year-round, fresh asparagus is a ready, affordable proposition.
Choose asparagus spears that look bright, crisp and colorful. Thinner stalks are younger and more tender, but thicker stalks hold up more sturdily for some recipes, including roasting. Trim the base of the stalk to remove any woodiness — one trick is to hold the asparagus spear lightly at both ends and slowly bend it, and it will break at the point where the lower tough section begins.
Whether picking it from the market or your own patch, step lively — and lightly — toward asparagus for a taste of spring.
Rebecca Howard grew up in Kansas and has written for the Los Angeles Daily News, the Los Angeles Times and LA Parent Magazine, and currently writes the food blog, “A Woman Sconed.”
Savory Asparagus and Cheese Bread Pudding