Cold weather and a cancelled festival shouldn't keep asparagus from your dinner plate

swthompson@herald-leader.comApril 22, 2014 

After 19 years of celebrating the asparagus crop, the May's Lick Asparagus Festival will not be held this year.

"We have lost some of our steam among the core group of organizers," said Jennifer Gleason, who helped with the festival for many years. "We are all 20 years older, too, so we are giving it a rest this year."

The event that was held the third Saturday in May could take place every two years, but its future is uncertain, she said.

The cancelled asparagus festival is no reason not to enjoy asparagus this spring. But those who love fresh stalks will have to wait a while longer.

John Strang, a horticulturist at the University of Kentucky, said asparagus came through the arctic vortex incursions without any problems, but it's not quite ready yet.

"Due to our cool spring, it is later than normal. Growers were able to harvest once or twice prior to the freeze this week," Stang said, referring to the April 16 temperature drop. "The freeze froze any exposed spears to the ground. We should be back in asparagus production in a couple of days.

"I expect an excellent crop this year, as the rain last summer kept the plants growing and they were able to store a lot of reserves in the roots."

John Ross, who grows about two acres of asparagus on his Foggy Bottoms Farm in Cynthiana, said his crop will come later this spring.

"The temperature of the soil plays a part as much as anything," he said.

Before the freeze last week, Ross saw a few shoots emerging. "Anything that's emerged is ruined." But the freeze didn't hurt the crowns, which will produce 7- to 9-inch spears every two to four days from mid-April to about the first of June.

"I've had it come up as early as March 24 and as late as the 27th or 28th of April," Ross said.

"I did notice some today. Since the freeze, new ones have popped up, so it won't be long" before the crop is plentiful, Ross said Thursday.

You can pick up Mason County asparagus. Burrwal Farm in May's Lick has about 3½ acres of asparagus and will sell on May's Lick Main Street the third weekend of May. And be sure to check farmers markets each week to see how the crop is progressing.

Go to Ross' website, Foggybottomsfarm.net; or Burrwal Farm in May's Lick, Burrwalsbest.com; Lexingtonfarmersmarket.com; or Bluegrassfarmersmarket.org.

Asparagus grows in thick and thin, and green, white, and purple varieties. When buying at farmers markets or at the supermarket, choose upright, firm-looking stalks and exam the tips, particularly if the asparagus is in a bunch. The tips are the best part and the part most likely to break or spoil. They should be closed and compact, appearing neither excessively dry nor damp, according to the California Asparagus Commission.

To store, remove any bands or wires from bundled asparagus. If it's not to be eaten right away, keep it loose in a plastic bag in the vegetable bin for several days. Fresh picked asparagus should be set in a jar of water with the tops loosely covered with a plastic bag.

Because asparagus is grown in fine, sandy soil, it's a good idea to soak it in a basin of water for 15 minutes before cooking to get any grit out of the tips.

To trim thin asparagus, hold the stalk with one hand at the bottom and the other hand a few inches away. Bend the asparagus gently and let it snap where the tender and tough parts meet. If it doesn't snap, slide your hands upward a bit and try again. With thick asparagus, it's best to cut it because it will break virtually anywhere on the stalk and you'll end up wasting a lot of it. Cut it where you notice a change in the color in the stalk. Peel thicker stalks with a swivel potato peeler.

Asparagus is the first vegetable to appear in spring that most of us eagerly await, and it's on almost every Derby party menu. If you can find local asparagus before your Derby party, here are some tips to follow from The New Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone by Deborah Madison.

When purchasing asparagus, allow 10 thin stalks and 5 or 6 thick stalks per person. Roasting asparagus is an easy way to prepare, and it partners well with butter, olive oil, toasted sesame and roasted peanut oils, Parmesan, fontina cheese, eggs, parsley, basil, fresh sage, chervil, mint, tarragon, lemon, orange, capers, ginger, soy, peas, leeks, green onions, artichokes, fava beans.

RECIPES

Here are some recipes to try.

Croustade of asparagus hollandaise

2 pounds asparagus tips (thin if possible), trimmed

For the croustade:

3 cups soft white bread crumbs

1¼ cups cashews, finely ground in a coffee grinder (or use ground almonds or almond meal)

1¼ sticks butter

3 garlic cloves, finely chopped

1 small onion, finely grated

1 cup pine nuts

5 teaspoons water

For the hollandaise sauce:

2 sticks butter, cut into chunks

4 egg yolks

2 tablespoons lemon juice

Salt and black pepper

First, make the croustade. Mix together the bread crumbs, ground nuts, butter, garlic and onion by hand or in a food processor, then stir in the pine nuts and water and mix to make a dough.

Press the mixture down lightly into the bottom of a 12-inch shallow, ovenproof or pizza dish. Bake in a preheated oven, at 400 degrees, for 15 to 20 minutes, until crisp and golden brown. Set aside.

Cook the asparagus in a little boiling water in a saucepan for 3 to 4 minutes, or until tender, then drain.

Meanwhile, make the sauce. Melt the butter gently in a saucepan without browning it. Put the egg yolks, lemon juice and some seasoning into a food processor or blender and process for 1 minute until thick. With the motor running, pour in the melted butter in a thin, steady stream — the sauce will thicken. Let stand for a minute or two.

Pile the asparagus on top of the croustade, pour the sauce over it, and serve immediately. Makes 6 servings.

Source: The Best of Rose Elliott, The Ultimate Vegetarian Collection

Roasted asparagus with hazelnut picada

1/4 cup stale bread cubes

1/4 cup shelled, skinned unsalted hazelnuts

3 tablespoons olive oil

2 teaspoons minced garlic

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme

2 bunches asparagus, bottom 1/3 trimmed with a peeler to achieve uniform thickness, about 2 pounds

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Toss the bread cubes and hazelnuts in a small bowl with 1 tablespoon olive oil, garlic, 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1/2 teaspoon pepper. Transfer the mixture to a sheet pan and roast until browned, about 8 minutes. Remove from the oven and toss with the thyme. Cool slightly before transferring to a food processor. Pulse into a crumble.

Meanwhile, toss the asparagus in a large bowl with the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and 1/2 teaspoon pepper. Transfer to a sheet pan and roast until bright green and lightly crinkled, about 4 minutes for pencil-thin asparagus or up to 10 minutes for jumbo spears. Serve the asparagus immediately with picada sprinkled on top. Makes 4 to 6 servings.

Source: Vedge By Rich landau and kate jacoby

Sharon Thompson: (859) 231-3321. Twitter: @FlavorsofKY. Blog: Flavorsofkentucky.bloginky.com.

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