I can't stop buying asparagus. It's there in abundance at the Boulder Farmers' Market when I visit Saturday. The season is so short, and you really can't get that sweet, crisp, grassy kick at any other time of year: Asparagus doesn't freeze well, and the imported-from-somewhere-else bundles you get in the supermarket have no taste at all.
It's a beautiful morning as I stroll from stall to stall, but there's a heaviness in the air, a kind of uncertainty. Everyone knows a big storm is on the way, frost and several inches of snow. While most of us feel put out by winter weather this far into May, the consequences are far more dire for farmers.
Frost sounds a death knell for early tree fruits like apricots and possibly cherries. There go the early strawberries, says a grower at Aspen Moon Farms, who'd hoped to have fruit at the market for us within the next couple of weeks. Alaina Monroe tells me that Monroe Farms' first planting of beans will be destroyed; they'll be bringing the second to market later in spring.
And manager Jeni Nagle at Ela Family Farms -- who's also a little worried about the peach crop -- explains that Colorado's crazy weather can make those peaches that survive especially sweet because low temperatures increase the fruits' sugar storage. I taste her jams and we agree that Colorado peaches are the best in the country -- no matter what people in Georgia believe.
The folks at Toohey and Sons have gorgeous heads of tender lettuce, which store much better than the equally delicious but more perishable bags of leaves; Plowshares Pork is selling bok choy; Easter egg and sparkler radishes provide little circles of color all up and down the street; and on the Honeyacre Farms table the first greenhouse-grown, firm-fleshed, brilliant red and yellow peppers are on display.
"Nothing says 'I love you mom' like a bag of compost," reads a roguish sign beside Farmer John's huge bags of the stuff -- and you know that has to be true because a lot of the mothers strolling Thirteenth Street are carrying cartons of seedlings -- peppers and tomatoes, cabbage and kale, herbs of various kinds. Though no one's about to put anything tender and new into the earth until the storm has passed: Instead, they'll be desperately trying to cover the plants they've already set out.
I'm happy to see a table staffed by volunteer Steven Hoffman of Right to Know GMO Colorado. He's gathering signatures for Initiative #48, which will mandate that almost all food containing genetically modified organisms (which is almost every processed item you can buy) be labeled in Colorado by June, 2016. I've been reading research on GMOs for years and noting the ever-shifting arguments put forward by the industry. The latest -- and it's ubiquitous -- is that dozens of scientific studies have shown no damaging effects at all from GMOs (not true and also, since the industry actively suppresses critical research, entirely disingenuous). Therefore, proponents continue, labeling would unfairly hobble sales because the public (poor saps that we are), misled by anti-GMO propaganda, will shun labeled foods. To which the only reasonable response is, so what? Whether our perceptions are right or wrong, we have a right to know what we're putting in our mouths. As I sign the petition, Steve tells me Right to Know CO needs 86,105 signatures by August, and has around 15,000 at the moment. You can read the text of the initiative here: righttoknow-gmo.org/states/colorado. I leave with my baskets full of produce, and my head full of asparagus recipes. Keep reading for asparagus recipes.
The only way I've figured out to enjoy asparagus through the summer and into the dead of winter is to make and freeze asparagus soup. I've included a recipe below, as well as some other ways to cook asparagus. The most basic way:
You know to wash the stalks and snap off the white, hard ends. Then roll the stems in a bit of olive oil, season, and either grill or roast (single layer) in a 350 degree oven for eight to ten minutes or so. Keep checking.
Asparagus also goes brilliantly with oranges and hazelnuts in a salad. Asparagus Salad
The hazelnuts: First, get the skin off the hazelnuts by roasting in a 375 degree oven for ten to fifteen minutes, until the skins begin to blister. Wrap the nuts in a clean kitchen towel, let them steam for around a minute, then start rubbing. Most of the skin will flake off (though not all of it, no matter what you do. Don't make yourself crazy). When the hazelnuts are cool, give them a whirl in the Cuisinart just until they're crumbly or keep them in the towel and smash with a skillet or rolling pin.
Now make a vinaigrette. Your acid, which should make up a third of the volume: two parts orange juice, one part lemon juice and a bit of zest. (Essential citrus oils are terrific if you're tired of zesting; they add a wonderful flavor punch to anything from cookies to lemon curd to stews. Be sure to use no more than a couple of drops. What you're getting is the oil from the peel; no acid there, but definitely some bitterness.)
Two-thirds olive oil (One-half teaspoon of mustard will help with emulsification. And if you feel like adding a minced garlic clove, I wouldn't stop you.)
Whisk or shake all the vinaigrette ingredients together. Salt and pepper to taste.
For the asparagus: Place the stalks into boiling salted water for somewhere between 1 and three minutes. They should be crisp-tender.
Put it together: Toss the still-warm stems in the vinaigrette and sprinkle with chopped hazelnuts. Serve on a bed of lettuce.
Ingredients: A couple of leeks, white part only, washed thoroughly and chopped fine. If you don't have leeks, you can use onions.
A couple cloves garlic, minced. Also some finely chopped shallot if you want.
A medium-sized floury potato (yukon gold or russet), cubed.
A knob of butter and some olive oil.
A bunch or two of asparagus, ends snapped off (wash and save them) and stems cut into one-to-two-inch pieces. If you want to go uptown rather than rustic, cut off and save the ferny little tips for garnish.
Chicken stock. (Homemade is best -- see the recipe at the end of this blog -- but store-bought works, too.)
Simmer the stock gently in a separate pot. For extra asparagus flavor, toss in the stem ends.
Saute the leeks and/or onions slowly in the butter and olive oil in a large heavy pot. You want them transparent, not browned. Add the potato and saute a couple of minutes. Add the cut-up asparagus. Stir to make sure everything's nice and buttery and saute a few minutes longer.
Add your stock, straining out the stem ends if you've used them.
Simmer roughly 15-20 minutes, until the potato and asparagus are cooked through.
Puree. I like to use an immersion blender because a food processor or stand blender is more of a pain, but those also work.
If you've separated out the tips, cook them quickly in boiling, salted water. Garnish with the tips, creme fraiche, little cooked shrimp, croutons -- or nothing at all.
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Finally: The inimitable David Tanis had a recipe for Spanish Asparagus Revuelto --asparagus with Spanish chorizo, softly scrambled eggs and smoked paprika -- in the New York Times recently. I've made it twice now -- though I must admit, the second time I added quite a bit more chorizo than the two ounces he recommends -- and it's delicious. Read it here.