Wednesday, April 30, 2008


As I was driving to work yesterday, I saw a farm stand with the first local asparagus of the year. This made me a bit sad. Not because asparagus, in general, makes me sad. But because this was supposed to be the year that I got asparagus from my own garden.

When I bought my house in late 2004, I immediately started thinking of things I could plant that I didn't have at the community garden, things I could commit to long term. (Admittedly, this will be my 13th year at the community garden, which should count as long term, but still. The minute you give up your plot, it becomes a blank slate for the next person who takes it. I’ve seen hundreds of dollars worth of perennials tossed by new gardeners who didn’t know what they were tossing. I wasn’t prepared to do that to asparagus.) I put in some raspberries, and the blueberry bushes are ready and waiting. Last summer, I planted my first potatoes, which I enjoyed. (I can't grow those at the community garden because of the potato bug, which, at least so far, hasn't discovered the potatoes at my house.)

But asparagus was what I wanted most. That first spring, I kept poking around the garden and the various beds around the yard, hoping that I would see some asparagus emerging. And there were some nice discoveries--in addition to the various bulbs and perennials, there were several rhubarb plants and a productive strawberry patch. But alas, no asparagus.

So, two springs ago, my second spring at the house, I decided to create my own asparagus bed. There wasn't really room in the main part of the garden, though--between the herbs, the perennials, and the strawberries and raspberries, there's not actually that much room for vegetables, and I wanted to use that space for other things. So, I picked a spot at the edge of the yard, next to the woods, and decided to put the asparagus there. It was out of the way but still got sun (at least in the spring), and other things (like rhubarb) were growing in that area.

Digging an asparagus bed is labor intensive, to say the least, and even more so when it's on the side of a small rocky mountain. I had to recruit Alex to help get some of the seemingly immovable rocks out, and it was the work of several weekends. After consulting diagrams in multiple garden books, I dug out my trough, created mounds for the plants, draped the asparagus crowns over the mounds, covered them up, and set out to patiently wait the two years it would take for them to grow enough so I could have asparagus from my own garden.

And I’ve been patient. When the first thin stalks appeared last summer, I cheered them on, gave them organic fertilizer, built up the soil around them, cleared the leaves and weeds away. One more year, I told myself.

But I was already starting to doubt.

What I didn't really realize when I chose the spot for the asparagus bed is that it’s in the path of a stream. Not a fully flowing stream—that, I would have noticed. But when it rains and the water flows down the mountain, it all seems to land in the asparagus bed. (The cottage in my backyard is also apparently built on this stream bed, which was a bit alarming, when we discovered it.) And when it rains a lot, as it tends to in spring, the asparagus bed is basically a big puddle.

So, it's not that the asparagus isn't growing--it's just not growing very vigorously. It's rather spindly, and I can't help but think that if it were in a sunnier and drier spot, it might be happier. You're supposed to only pick the stalks that are as thick as your finger. A few of the stalks are so thin that they look like fairy asparagus, or perhaps asparagus for the Borrowers. (You can see them on the left in the photo below.)

In this photo, you can really see the mud puddle effect:

So, I'm trying to get myself used to the idea of digging another asparagus bed, one in a sunnier spot. I have no idea where that might be, though. It might mean having to use part of the main garden or it might mean digging another bed somewhere. (Who needs all that lawn, anyway?)

In the meantime, I'm going to partake in all the local asparagus I can find--and there's lots of it, and it's good. (One of the nicknames for the valley where I live is the Asparagus Valley.)

Below is my long-time favorite asparagus recipe. This is one of the first things I make every spring, even before the local asparagus comes in. It tastes like the essence of spring. I still think it will taste better, though, when the asparagus comes from my own yard. Oh well.

Asparagus Soup, from the Greens cookbook

The Stock

1 lb. thin asparagus, lower ends only

1 cup leek greens, roughly chopped

1 bay leaf

1 carrot, peeled and chopped

1 celery stalk, chopped

4 parsley branches

½ tsp. salt

8 cups cold water

Snap the lower ends off the asparagus where they break easily when bent. Rinse the ends well and roughly chop them into 1-inch pieces. Combine all the ingredients in a stock pot. Bring to a boil, then simmer 20-25 minutes. Strain.

The Soup

1 lb. thin asparagus (about 12 oz. after the ends are removed)

3 tbs. butter

2-3 leeks, white parts only (about 8 oz.), sliced

½ tsp. salt

1 large potato, peeled and cubed (optional)

1 tbs. parsley, chopped

5-7 cups stock

¼-1/2 cup light or heavy cream (optional)

Freshly ground pepper

½ to 1 tsp. grated lemon peel

Parmesan, grated, for garnish

Cut off the tips of the asparagus and set them aside. Roughly chop the stems into 1-inch pieces. Melt the butter in a soup pot. Add the leeks and cook them over medium-high heat for 2 or 3 minutes, stirring as needed. Add the asparagus stems, salt, potato (if using) and parsley. Pour in 5 cups of the stock and bring to a boil, then cook at a simmer until the asparagus are just tender, about 6 minutes. Blend the soup well, then work it through the fine screen of a food mill or through a chinoise to remove any fibers.

Return to the stove, stir in the cream, if using, and thin it with more stock, if necessary. Season to taste with salt, freshly ground black pepper and the lemon peel.

In another pot, bring a few cups of water to a boil with a little salt. Cook the asparagus tips, 1-2 minutes until they are done, then pour them into a colander.

Garnish the soup with Parmesan and a few asparagus tips in each bowl

A few notes:

It’s really worth it to make the stock, which give it an extra essence of asparagus.

I usually use the potato to thicken it a bit, but I’ve never added cream—it’s delicious as is and doesn’t really need it.

I usually use the zest of a whole lemon, partly because it’s easier than measuring and partly because it seems like a good amount.

I have strained it occasionally, but you don’t really have to if you’re not serving it at an elegant dinner.

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