Posted on May 17th, 2013
Asparagus is a pretty funny thing, when you really think about it. I’ve heard it’s some sort of grass, which makes sense when you see the way it grows. Individual stalks poke up from beneath the dirt, sometimes clumped together with others but mainly striking out on their own, a single minaret growing to seemingly impossible heights. There’s no foliage between the stalks, as one might expect with other plants, just dirt and these towering green fingers. With each day, each hour, practically each minute you can see the stalks reach further toward the sky, making it look appear more like some sort of subterranean being poking up probes to test a new and alien aboveground environment.
In a home garden, asparagus is really a strange thing. You plant it a few years before you want to eat it, an exercise in patience almost entirely beyond my realm of possibility. After years of waiting you can harvest, crouching down to the dirt of the garden bed to cut the stalks, which present themselves in a carelessly diverse array of sizes. Some as thin as disposable plastic straws require nothing but a quick slash of a kitchen knife. Some as big around as a silver dollar require strokes back and forth, moves hopefully quick and efficient enough to get through the outer skin on the far side. In buying asparagus at the grocery or from a market booth the bunches come grouped by size, perfectly categorized for even cooking and so that it all looks good on the plate. One’s own asparagus patch, however, cares little of your desire for homogeneity.
All patience and adaptability aside, however, asparagus is a particularly great thing to be able to harvest from a garden. Gathered directly before eating, the stalks are sweeter than I’d ever tasted, tender and full of that flavor that can only be described as “spring.” I’ve heard that flavor comes from chlorophyll, a desperately-needed green respite after months of white and orange and purple. Whatever it is, it is spectacular.
When you have backyard asparagus to harvest, a world of opportunities awaits. You can slice the bigger, fatter stalks into discs and roast them all together, the thinnest stalks cooking until overly tender and tangling together all the rest of the stalks on the plate. You can blanche and ice-shock the more moderately-sized stalks and use them as a vehicle for aioli, each half of your snack lifting up the other into the realm of the gods. Or you can shave your raw asparagus into long, thin ribbons with a vegetable peeler and pile it into a mess of salad, and eat it like it’s no big deal that you’ve been eating asparagus every day for weeks, like some luxuriating king. You can put it in pasta and top it with a confetti of fresh spring herbs, you can put it on pizza with an egg that has a golden yolk, you can puree it into a creamy green soup topped with big toasted croutons. You can cook it just to look at it, if you want to (not the most responsible use, let’s be real). You could put it in a vase on your bedside just so that each morning you can awake and be reminded of all the asparagus just waiting and at the ready. You will be flush with asparagus, and spring will be a diet of riches.
After the asparagus season is done – you likely will not have had your fill, but with an eye toward stewardship you’ll know you need to think about next year’s crop – you will once again exercise your remarkable powers of patience and let the stalks go to seed. Unharvested, they will grow taller, and taller, and taller still, at the end bursting into a towering, intricate web of spindly asparagus ferns and tiny yellow blossoms. This mess of delicate stalks and adolescent leaves and pinpoint flowers will threaten to overtake whatever deigns to grow nearby, and that corner of your garden will remind you yet again that the things we eat are, at least ideally, wild beings. And just when you think this green bramble cannot grow any larger, you will cut it all down and wait until the next year. You will wait until those strange green stalks start poking their heads up through the soil again in the spring, all innocent and unassuming, ready to takeover your kitchen once again.