The coming of March marks an awakening of sorts here on the Central California Coast. With daylight savings time bringing longer afternoons, more folks are outside - assessing their yards and plotting what early projects can be squeezed in to take advantage of March's generally abundant rainfall. I'm among them, doubly so as this year is the first full spring in our new neighborhood (and my new backyard).
Asparaguscape- Yolo county, California This awakening is not lost on the local nurseries and farmers markets- suddenly we go from the drab and ordinary dregs of the winter to a world of fruit trees and flowering plants, seed potatoes and garlic, in addition to tempting starter plants of all kinds. Spring for me is a circus of optimism - and like every year I start the season believing I can grow anything. Mostly though, I just stay out of the way and let Mother Nature work her magic - trees bloom, vines put out leaves and dormant seeds push their first shoots up from the ground.
Peak season asparagus display- Austin, Texas Meanwhile, at a desk in Austin, Texas, David (our national seasonal vegetable buyer) is also presiding over the awakening of an industry. Sometime in mid-March (depending on the weather), asparagus production crosses over our border to the south and the long domestic season begins — marking the beginning of the spring harvest season here in America.
Sacramento Delta, California 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 mistake a working asparagus field for one that is lying fallow for the spring. Walk the field, though, 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 the season 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, though, as a well managed asparagus field will remain productive for as many as 15 years. In the U.S., New Jersey, Michigan, Washington State and California are all major producers but there are smaller regional and local producers as well. 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.
Jim Durst with a remarkable organic specimen- Esparto, California 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. A white variety, a color achieved by restricting the sprout's exposure to sunlight, is extremely popular in some 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.
The start of asparagus season is important for another reason — it's the only excuse I need to crank up the grill (which has sat lonely and neglected throughout winter months). There is nothing better than lightly grilled asparagus brushed with olive oil and pepper, served with some grated Parmesan. Except maybe an asparagus stir fry with some green garlic and sweet peppers. Or an asparagus omelet with basil and a tiny bit of Prosciutto (served with homemade scones). Or any number of wonderful reminders of spring. What's your favorite way to enjoy fresh asparagus? Many thanks to Peter Oszaczky, John Walker, Bob Flood, and David Haglund for contributing to this post.