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'Purple passion'

The slender lilac spires seem like foliage from another planet.

But this vegetable is well within reach at local grocery stores and restaurants. Organic purple asparagus from the Applegate Valley is a feast for the eyes as well as the stomach.

"It's very pretty," said Country Village manager Paul Todak. "It does stay purple when you cook it."

Dubbed "purple passion," the asparagus is just one crop Bill and Barbara Steele are growing to enhance the diversity of their vineyard near McKee Bridge. Their Cowhorn Vineyard & Garden adheres not only to organic growing principles. It's the first certified biodynamic winery in Southern Oregon.

"We're trying to enhance biodiversity," Barbara Steele said. "That means having different crops."

This year's asparagus harvest is the first of what the Steeles hope will be a long-term complement to their winery. While syrah, grenache, viognier and marsanne grapes cling to swaths of extremely rocky soil, the asparagus greedily feast on the property's richer parcels.

"Asparagus is a nutrient hog," Barbara Steele said. "Wine grapes love ... the most nutrient-poor ... lousy soil."

Nearly 50 soil tests of the tract off Eastside Road revealed a patchwork most suited, Oregon State University scientists said, to growing grapes or grazing cattle. Before the Steeles purchased the weedy acreage in 2002, it was open range for grazing.

Neither one a wine enthusiast, the Steeles thought growing grapes sounded more interesting than their alternatives. But they yearned to optimize what rich soil the farm possessed.

Enter asparagus. The couple planted an acre last year, which matured this year into about 200 pounds of the vegetable. A perennial, the plants stand to keep producing for 10 to 15 years, Barbara Steele said. The Steeles also planted 20 acres of barley last year, sold to the Grange Co-op for feed, and are experimenting with a small orchard of pear, apple, cherry, chestnut and persimmon trees.

A simpler life in the Rogue Valley lured the Steeles, both 45, from finance careers in San Francisco. Adhering to holistic farming practices, they believe, will generate a self-containing eco-system that actually improves soil, land and the atmosphere, a philosophy known as biodynamic.

In keeping with their overall mission, the couple used rock ripped from the property to line their irrigation pond and fallen pine trees as siding for the winery.

"We both knew that we wanted to do something that was about environmental sensitivity," Barbara Steele said.

The asparagus harvest in late spring followed by grape picking in early fall evens out their labor force, the Steeles said. This year, their four employees also will plant their own gardens. Crops benefit from compost made of grape seeds and skins mixed with purchased cow manure. Weeds are abated simply with tilling.

"The Rogue Valley is an incredible area to farm," Barbara Steele said. "There are people here who value local food."

Cowhorn asparagus can be purchased for $3.98 per pound at Harry & David's Country Village and Ashland's Shop 'N' Kart and for $4.45 per pound at Ashland Food Co-op. After purchasing, trim butt end of spears, then refrigerate, upright standing in an inch of water, the California Asparagus Commission recommends. Cover loosely with plastic or wrap cut ends in a wet paper towel.

Cowhorn asparagus also has been featured on menus at Larks restaurant in the Ashland Springs Hotel and New Sammy's Cowboy Bistro in Talent.

Ashland Springs executive chef Damon Jones paired purple passion asparagus with linguine, fresh seasonal vegetables and basil pesto. New Sammy's owner and chef Charlene Rollins served the asparagus as a first course drizzled in olive oil and topped with chopped, hard-boiled egg.

Reach reporter Sarah Lemon at 776-4487, or e-mail slemon@mailtribune.com.

Ham and Asparagus Frittata

8 to 12 asparagus stalks, bottoms trimmed

1/2 yellow onion, chopped

11/2 cups thinly sliced button mushrooms

1 cup chopped cooked ham

4 eggs

Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

1 cup grated cheddar cheese

Bring a large saucepan of water to a boil. Preheat broiler. While water heats, trim the asparagus spears to fit in a circular pattern in a large skillet (similar to the hands of a clock).

Once water is boiling, blanch asparagus by adding them to the water and cooking 2 to 3 minutes, or until just barely tender and bright green.

Transfer asparagus to a colander and run under cool water.

Set aside to drain. Lightly coat the skillet with cooking spray and set over medium-high heat. When skillet is hot, add the onion and mushrooms and cook until onions are just tender, about 4 minutes.

Add the ham to the skillet and cook, stirring often, until heated through. While ham cooks, whisk the eggs with 2 tablespoons cold water in a small bowl. Season with salt and pepper, to taste. Reduce heat to medium.

Use a wooden spoon to spread onions, mushrooms and ham evenly across skillet. Pour eggs over vegetables and ham. If needed, tilt pan to ensure eggs spread evenly. Cook until edges of the egg are done and center begins to bubble, about 4 minutes.

The eggs will not be fully cooked at this stage, but will finish under the boiler. Arrange asparagus spears in a circular pattern in the skillet, then top with the cheese. Place the skillet under the broiler and cook until the cheese is melted and begins to brown.

Makes 4 servings.

Asparagus with Roasted Garlic Aioli

2 medium heads garlic, whole

1 tablespoon olive oil

11/2 cups mayonnaise

2 tsps. apple-cider vinegar

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1/4 teaspoon salt

3 tablespoons chopped fresh chives

2 pounds medium asparagus, bottoms trimmed

Set oven rack in middle position and preheat oven to 400 degrees. Cut off and discard tops of the garlic heads to expose cloves. Brush each head with 1/2 tablespoon of the olive oil. Wrap heads together in foil and bake until tender, about 45 minutes. Once cooked, set aside until cool enough to handle. Squeeze each garlic head to pop the cooked cloves from the skins. Place heads in a food processor and add the mayonnaise, vinegar, pepper and salt, then puree until smooth. Transfer to a bowl and stir in the chives. With a vegetable peeler, peel lower two-thirds of each asparagus stalk. In a wide 6- to 8-quart pot of boiling lightly salted water, cook the asparagus, uncovered, until crisp-tender, about 5 minutes. Drain asparagus well in a colander and rinse under cold water until asparagus is cool. Pat dry with paper towels. Serve asparagus with roasted-garlic aioli.

NOTE: Aioli can be made one day ahead and chilled, covered. Bring to room temperature before serving. Asparagus can be cooked 2 hours ahead and kept, covered with dampened paper towels, at room temperature. Makes 8 appetizers.

Recipe from the February 2007 issue of Gourmet magazine.

Asparagus and Lamb Stir-Fry

1 pound boneless lamb (from leg or loin)

2 tablespoons soy sauce

3 teaspoons cornstarch

1/2 cup low-sodium chicken stock or dry sherry

1 tablespoon chili-garlic sauce (Chinese)

1 teaspoon sugar

2 tablespoons peanut oil or vegetable oil

4 green onions, cut diagonally into 1-inch pieces

1 teaspoon freshly minced ginger

1 clove garlic, minced

1 pound fresh asparagus, ends trimmed, cut into 2-inch pieces

2 tablespoons sesame seeds, toasted

Cut the lamb into long, 2-inch wide strips along the grain of the meat, then cut crosswise (across the grain), into thin slices. In a medium bowl, combine lamb, 1 tablespoon of the soy sauce and 2 teaspoons of the cornstarch.

In a small bowl, stir together the stock, the remaining soy sauce and cornstarch, the chili-garlic sauce and sugar; set aside.

Heat a wok or large frying pan over high heat. Pour 1 tablespoon of the oil into hot wok, swirling to coat. Add lamb and cook, stirring and tossing, until lightly golden, about 2 minutes. With a slotted spoon, remove to a plate.

Reduce heat to medium-high. Pour the remaining oil into hot wok, swirling to coat. Add the green onions, ginger and garlic. Cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add the asparagus and cook, stirring and tossing, until bright green, 30 seconds to 1 minute.

Stir sauce to blend and add to pan. Cook, stirring, until sauce thickens, about 1 minute; cover and cook until asparagus is tender-crisp, about 1 minute. Return lamb to pan and just heat through. Garnish with the sesame seeds and serve immediately with steamed rice or rice noodles.

Makes 4 servings.

Recipe developed for The Associated Press by Tina Salter, courtesy California Asparagus Commission.

Asparagus Braised with Fresh Rosemary and Bay Leaves

2 pounds fresh green or white asparagus, bottoms trimmed, peeled if tough

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

1 teaspoon coarse sea salt

3 sprigs fresh rosemary

3 bay leaves, preferably fresh

In a skillet large enough to hold the asparagus in a single layer, combine the asparagus, oil, salt, rosemary and bay leaves. Sprinkle with 3 tablespoons of cold water. Cover and cook over high heat just until the oil and water mixture begins to sizzle.

Reduce heat to medium and braise asparagus, covered, turning from time to time, until asparagus begins to brown in spots, about 8 to 10 minutes. Cooking time will vary based on the thickness of asparagus. Serve immediately.

Makes 4 servings.

Recipe from Patricia Wells' "Vegetable Harvest."

Asparagus- and Mushroom-filled Crèpes

1 pound fresh asparagus, ends trimmed

3 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided

8 ounces button mushrooms, thinly sliced

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 small yellow onion

2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

3/4 cup chicken or vegetable stock

1/4 cup heavy cream

3/4 cup grated Gruyère cheese, divided

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

8 savory crèpes (purchased or using recipe that follows)

Bring a large sauté pan of salted water to a boil over high heat. Add the asparagus and cook until tender-crisp, about 2 minutes. Transfer asparagus to a colander, refresh under cold, running water to stop cooking, and drain well. Set aside.

In a medium sauté pan, melt 1 tablespoon of the butter over medium-high heat. Add the mushrooms and cook until moisture they release has evaporated and mushrooms are golden brown. Set aside.

In a medium saucepan, melt the remaining butter over medium-high heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until translucent, about 3 minutes. Add the flour and cook, stirring, until light golden-brown, about 2 minutes. Add the stock; bring to a boil, stirring briskly, and cook until thickened, about 1 minute. Remove from heat. Add the cream and 1/4 cup of the Gruyère cheese, whisk until smooth. Season to taste with salt and pepper; set aside.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 9-by-13-inch baking dish; set aside.

Place 2 tablespoons of cheese sauce down center of a crèpe and top with a spoonful of cooked mushrooms. Arrange 3 asparagus spears down center of crèpe so that tips extend just beyond edge of crèpe. Roll up and place, seam-side down, in prepared baking dish. Repeat with remaining crèpes, sauce and filling (crèpes should fit snuggly in the dish). Sprinkle the remaining Gruyère over rolled crèpes.

Bake, uncovered, until crèpes are warmed through and cheese has melted, about 12-15 minutes. If you prefer a browner top, place under a heated broiler just until golden-brown. Serve immediately.

Makes 4 servings.

SAVORY CREPES: In a medium bowl, combine 1 cup all-purpose flour and 1/8 teaspoon Kosher salt; whisk to combine. Make a well in center of flour and add 3 large eggs; whisk eggs just until thoroughly mixed. Slowly and steadily whisk in about 1/2 cup milk, while incorporating more and more flour from edges into batter. Once you have incorporated flour, whisk in 2 tablespoons melted, unsalted butter and enough milk (about 1/2 cup) to make batter the consistency of heavy cream. Let rest at room temperature for 30 minutes or cover and refrigerate overnight. If batter was refrigerated, bring to room temperature before cooking and add a bit more milk, if needed.

Heat a seasoned, steel crèpe pan or 8-inch nonstick sauté pan over medium-high heat. Using a pastry brush or paper towel, brush or wipe pan with a thin film of melted, unsalted butter. Add a scant 1/4 cup of batter and immediately rotate pan, lifting it off heat, so batter swirls and forms a thin even layer over surface of pan. Return pan back to burner and cook until crèpe just begins to brown underneath and top surface looks set, about 1 minute. Using a spatula, loosen edge of crèpe from pan and flip (fingers work best at this point) Cook just until lightly browned, about 1 minute. Transfer crèpe to a plate. Repeat with remaining batter, stacking crèpes directly on top of one another when cooked.

Crèpes will keep tightly wrapped in the refrigerator for 3 days, or frozen for 1 month. Let frozen crèpes come to room temperature before separating from the stack.

Recipe courtesy of the California Asparagus Commission.

Purple passion asparagus grows in plots of richer soil at the otherwise rocky Cowhorn Vineyard & Garden near McKee Bridge. - Mail Tribune / Bob Pennell