One of the best things to come out of the garden each year is asparagus. It’s a perennial vegetable that, once established, will give you years of vegetable deliciousness with very little work. In fact, after planting your vegetable garden, I highly recommend you make establishing an asparagus bed your next priority.
Small investment, big return
It takes a little bit of work to get an asparagus bed established. Since asparagus is a perennial, you need to put it in a place that won’t be disturbed by future garden expansions. You won’t be able to harvest anything for at least 3 years and even in the 4th year, it won’t be an awful lot. But once the plants are mature, you will enjoy a bountiful harvest every spring.
The cheapest way to have asparagus is by starting from seed. But there are some disadvantages to starting with seed. The plants take longer to get established and about half of the plants will be
female. Female plants put all their energy into seed production, so they are not as productive as male plants. For the most vigorous and productive plants, buy all male crowns. (An asparagus crown is a cluster of mature roots.) They’re a bit more expensive than seeds, but worth the extra expense.
Dig a trench that is 8-10″ deep and 12-18″ wide. If you want more then one row of asparagus (who doesn’t?) rows should be 2′ apart. Put a small pile of compost in the middle of the trench to make a mound that is 2-3″ high. Put the crown on top of that, so that it sits a bit above the roots. Spread the roots out spider-like and cover the roots with about 3-4″ of soil. Then every week or so, as the shoots grow, add another 3-4″ of soil until the trench is completely filled in.
After two or three years, you can begin picking shoots that are thicker than pencil. When the plant produces shoots that are thinner than a pencil, the roots are getting taxed and it’s time to stop harvesting. The first year of harvest you will only get a few cuttings for a few days. The second year you’ll get a couple weeks. After that, when the beds are six to seven years old, you will have a bounty of tasty asparagus.
Why asparagus is king
Two words: Taste and versatility.
Growing up, there was no vegetable I hated more than asparagus. That’s because we always had it canned. Seriously, there is nothing yukkier than over-cooked gray-green asparagus. on the other hand, there is nothing more divine than freshly-picked asparagus cooked to perfection.
Pick the spears when they are 5″ or taller and at least the diameter of a pencil. Unlike what you buy in the store, the thicker spears are actually more flavorful. That’s because what you buy in the store left the field a week or more ago and is a dried-out, fibrous shell of what it once was. The spear tip should be well-formed but not yet opening. Cut it about 1″ above the ground.
Cut all the spears to an even length, about 6″. But don’t discard the remaining stem. Cut off only the most fibrous, tough part of the stem and keep the tender part. Even though it doesn’t have the tasty tenderness of the spear, it still has a lot of flavor that you can use to make soup, add to casseroles or other dishes or turn into Veggie Powder.
The easiest way to cook asparagus is by boiling it. Put the spears in 1″ of boiling water and steam for 4-5 minutes. Do not overcook! When it is slightly tender and still a bright green, drain the boiling water and serve immediately. The residual
heat of cooking will continue to cook the asparagus, so the longer it sits in the pan, the longer it cooks. A 5 minute wait in the pan can result in an overcooked, mushy and dull-colored vegetable.
While boiling is the easiest way to cook asparagus, grilling it has to be the tastiest. Just brush spears with a little garlic-infused olive oil, sprinkle with kosher or sea salt and put them on the grill. Turn the spears every 1-2 minutes to ensure they are evenly cooked. When they are tender and bright green, remove from the grill and serve right away.
Sauces and soups
Asparagus served buttered and with salt is a treat all by itself. But the most perfect topping has to be Hollandaise Sauce. This rich, buttery-lemony sauce is a match made in heaven for asparagus.
Remember all those stem ends that I told you not to throw away? Use them to make Cream of Asparagus Soup. As you’re picking your asparagus, you’re sure to find a couple spears that are a little
past their prime. Pick them anyway and use them in the soup as well. This soup is so ridiculously easy, it has become one of my favorites. From prep to table, it takes less than 15 minutes. Serve with some warm homemade bread or biscuits and you have a summer feast.
Asparagus Tempura is another favorite treat during asparagus season. Again, super easy to make and amazingly delicious.
There’s more! If, after making all the Grilled Asparagus, Cream of Asparagus Soup and Asparagus Tempura your heart desires, you still have extra asparagus, you’ll want to make at least one or two batches of Pickled Asparagus. I don’t think that asparagus freezes well and I’ve already told you that I think that canned asparagus is a crime against humanity. But pickled asparagus? Now that’s a whole new universe of tastiness. Everyone on your Christmas list will love getting a jar of this as a gift.
Dehydrating asparagus is another great way to preserve this food. I especially like to take all the less-than-perfect parts–the stem ends that didn’t get cooked and spears that were picked a little late–and dry them. Once they are dry, grind them into a powder to use in Veggie Powder or make an instant
Cream of Asparagus Soup. Just add hot chicken broth and boil for 5-6 minutes, add cream and season to taste.
With all the wonderful ways you can serve and preserve asparagus, is it any wonder that I consider it the King of the Garden?