The 2011 North American asparagus season got off to something of a shaky start in Mexico this year. The hard freeze that blanketed most of the U.S. a few weeks ago stretched far into Mexico as well – freezing several days’ worth of the early asparagus crop. Pictures came over prompting comments for new displays of “poparagus” or “asparasicles.” Seriously though, Arctic air dips in the jet stream don’t normally reach this far south and many crops (particularly tomatoes and other summer vegetables) were severely damaged. The winter growing season is hard on growers. Even in areas that historically have moderate weather, a single errant weather system can wipe out or significantly reduce available supplies.
Fortunately, asparagus will bounce back from this early bout of weather with only a brief interruption in supply. The season is short in specific growing areas but asparagus production will cross the border into California in a few weeks and continue to march up both coasts and into New Jersey, Washington State and Michigan as we get closer to summer. The deep freeze we experienced in January will impact supplies in February, but March will signal a much larger range of available sources.
Asparagus in the field is not much to look at. In fact, if you are driving through an area where it is produced, it is easy to mistaken a working asparagus field for one that is lying fallow for the spring. Walk the field and the experience changes completely. It’s the first tender shoots of the plant that are harvested and seeing them poke through the soil is a beauty to behold. As spring progresses and the weather warms, the asparagus plant emerges and the fern-like bush will produce a red berry that is tilled back into the field to help feed the plant for the next season.
Asparagus is a part of the Asparagaceae family of plants and can be a challenging commodity for farmers to produce because of the life cycle of the plant. The Roots (or "rhizomes") that produce the shoots grow slowly and it can often take three to four years for a field to mature enough to produce in quantities that will pay for the cost of maintaining the land. The upfront investment will pay off for the patient farmer as a well managed asparagus field will remain productive for as many as 15 years. Organic production has also increased and many growers have discovered that asparagus is a good partner crop with tomatoes. Together, they extend a farm’s harvest season and the plants themselves protect one another from pests that commonly attack the other.
There are three general varieties of asparagus commercially produced. The most common is green, which accounts for the majority of all asparagus production worldwide. A less common purple variety is thought to be sweeter and less stringy than green. Finally, white (a color achieved by restricting the sprout’s exposure to sunlight) is extremely popular in select European countries. With green, the thicker stems are generally viewed as superior but color is the main factor in selecting quality asparagus. The stem should be uniformly green from top to bottom and asparagus with large white ends should be avoided. Your nose can also help you select fresh asparagus – pick up a bunch and smell the tips; aging asparagus has a strong unpleasant odor.
Asparagus is a versatile vegetable with a place in virtually any meal. My favorite is grilled or broiled – brushed with olive oil and pepper, served with some grated Parmigiano Reggiano. A stir fry with some green garlic and sweet peppers or an asparagus omelet with basil and a tiny bit of Prosciutto are also nice. Even raw or lightly braised is a treat in my spring salads.
Most of all the start of the domestic asparagus season serves as a reminder that while most of us are shivering under our heavy coats, waiting for the defroster in our cars to melt the ice on our windshields enough for us to drive, winter does not, in fact, go on forever. Somewhere it is spring, as it will be eventually for all of us.