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The Sustainable Kitchen

Stalking the wild asparagus

As a chef, I dread that March to April lull in produce — availability. Don't get me wrong. Winter does have its own bounty: the — hardiness of root vegetables, the earthiness of winter greens, the bright — acidity of all of those citrus varieties and the satisfying nature of — dried beans and legumes. Like many in the region, I get a bit stir crazy — and long for the rebirth of spring. To some, spring may mean girls in — spandex and sundresses, but the one truism for me is Asparagus=Spring. —

When my wife was living in Walla Walla, Wash., spring — officially came not necessarily on the date listed on the calendar but — when driving by the local farms you saw the first sprouts breaking through — the soil. After a long winter full of braises and slow cooked foods with — muted, rich flavors, the snappy first asparagus is divine.

I once read a book in which the hero served a whole meal — made of nothing but asparagus. For those who are familiar with TV Food — Network's outrageous program Iron Chef, a challenger once made an asparagus — dish that costs about $1,000 a serving. The chef took whole asparagus — stalks and baked them on top of a bed of six lobsters and below another — layer of six lobsters. Then, after it had finished cooking, he threw out — the lobsters and served the shellfish scented asparagus by itself.

The medical virtues of asparagus are legendary. Folklore — credits asparagus with everything from curing toothaches to being the — medieval Viagra. More recently, their nutritional content has been touted — as being a powerful cancer fighter. If that wasn't enough to qualify as — bragging rights, the plant is low in calories and tastes great.

Asparagus is a member of the lily family, a cousin to — onions, leeks, shallots and chives. Large spears come from younger plants, — they start producing sprouts in the second or third year, while small — sizes come from older plants or plants that have been planted closer together. —

Asparagus may=Spring but Asparagus=Wine. Asparagus has — a delicate, yet strong and penetrating flavor and a much deserved reputation — for being a wine killer. If you choose to serve wine with asparagus, have — several glasses of your choice and avoid the asparagus all together. Otherwise, — choose an ultra-grassy, non-oaky sauvignon/fum? blanc, preferably from — the Loire Valley of France or from New Zealand. In Oregon, look for producers — that make a sauvignon/pinot blanc with green apple flavors, crisp acidity — and herbal undertones. The sweeter and younger the asparagus the better — the match.

White asparagus, one of my favorites, is not genetically — different from green asparagus. It is any asparagus grown in the dark, — under the soil or under an opaque cover. Stalks are cut while still under — the surface and then continually handled in the absence of light to keep — them white. Needless to say, this system is very expensive. It does make — the white spears more tender, milder, and nuttier in flavor than green — asparagus. Besides that, when you serve them, they have a look to that — screams "I am a gourmand and I don't care you knows it."

No matter which type of asparagus you choose, select stalks — that are firm, straight, uniform and have spears with tightly closed, — compact tips. Since spears start to lose flavor and moisture as soon as — they are harvested, avoid imported asparagus (from either out of state — or out of the country). While they may look good, they tend to be woody — and lack flavor. Due to Oregon's sandy and volcanic soil, Oregon asparagus — tends to be free of bitter overtones and superior in flavor and texture — to their sometimes flavorless and stringy California cousins.

Yes, you can get asparagus year round but they are definitely — coming from Chile or even farther away. My opinion is, if you have to — have asparagus in December, you would be better off throwing the asparagus — away and eating the cardboard box it came in.

Chef's tips:

The old rule for preparing asparagus is to hold the tip — and base of the asparagus and the spear will snap at the base of the tender — part when bent. I prefer to trim away any woody parts at the base and — then peel the lower portion, slice it thinly and cook it separately from — the tips. These pieces make great soups, sauces, and pur?es or use them — in a stir-fry.

Asparagus seems to have an affinity for fats (like olive — oil or butter), citrus and nuts. Think of the classic match of asparagus — with hollandaise sauce. Roasting or grilling the stalks concentrates their — flavor and caramelizes the natural sugars. I love simple blanched asparagus — with a touch of olive oil and lemon but grilled asparagus will allow you — to show off the flavor of local asparagus. It is also a good excuse to — dust of the grill and start to enjoy the spring.

Chef Stein is culinary director for King Estate Winery — and author of "The Sustainable Kitchen Cookbook." He can be reached at — stu@thesustainablekitchen.com.