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Succulent Spears

Appetites for asparagus awaken early — at the first sight of these spears in grocery stores.

Shoppers already sated on asparagus, however, are passing up the best of the bunch. Oregon's asparagus season is in full swing this month with plenty of places to purchase some of the Rogue Valley's crop.

"It flies out the door," says Mary Shaw, culinary educator for Ashland Food Co-op, which stocks purple and green asparagus grown near Jacksonville at Cowhorn Vineyard & Garden.

In case there's any doubt that these are superior spears, the co-op plans free sampling of Cowhorn asparagus recipes in the store through Saturday, May 19. A co-op cooking class scheduled for Thursday, May 24, also will celebrate asparagus in a variety of dishes with other delicate, spring vegetables.

"Everything about them bespeaks spring," says Shaw. "They're just like that new bud coming up."

Although the earliest asparagus, even at the co-op, come from Mexico and California, the vegetable — unlike many others — isn't seen very often in its opposite season, when it hails from the Southern Hemisphere, says Shaw. That's all to eaters' enjoyment of the first truly fresh vegetables of a new growing season, she adds.

"People really get the seasonality of it and have for a long time," says Shaw. "Even though everybody waits for asparagus season, it's wonderful to have a variety of ways to prepare it."

The variety of asparagus sizes also suggests diverse uses. Pencil-thin spears should be cooked quickly — stir-fried or lightly sauteed or added to a salad, says Shaw. Thick ones are best for steaming or roasting and can make a meal unto themselves. There's no basis for the myth that thin asparagus is more desirable, says Shaw. Rather, the opposite is true.

"The fat ones are storing more moisture, more sugar, so they have more flavor."

The key to really highlighting that flavor, says Shaw, is pairing asparagus with ingredients, like rhubarb vinaigrette, that don't take away from it. Free tastings are from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturdays and from 4 to 6 p.m. Tuesdays at the store, 237 N. First St. For more information and to register for cooking classes, see www.ashlandfood.coop or call 541-482-2237.

Medford Food Co-op also stocks Cowhorn asparagus, and visitors to the Biodynamic farm, 1665 Eastside Road, can purchase it on site for $5 per pound. Applegate farmer Jeff Anderson sells asparagus for $3 per pound at Rogue Valley Growers and Crafters markets, Tuesdays at the Ashland armory and Thursdays at the Medford armory. Several other vendors will have asparagus through May. Check the seasonal availability of market produce on the Mail Tribune's online guide to local farmers markets, www.mailtribune.com/growersmarkets.

Reach Food Editor Sarah Lemon at 541-776-4487 or email slemon@mailtribune.com.

Succulent Spears