Tuesday, September 7, 2010

A is for Asparagus

This year, we had an uncommon surprise—our asparagus actually came up! Now if that sounds kind of like, ‘So what?’ let me explain that I’ve been waiting to plant and grow asparagus for the past forty years, but (while my husband and I grew children and grandchildren and friends and businesses in all the many places we have lived) we never lived in one place long enough to grow asparagus.

Oh, we planted them. Worked the soil and enriched it, make sure it had the correct pH—slightly alkaline, about an 8--(as you’ve heard me say repeatedly, gardening is, after all, not at all about the plants—it’s about the soil) and put down the asparagus roots; but then, we moved again, and the asparagus, like all our many fruit trees and bramble bushes, as well as the rose bushes and perennials we planted, passed to someone else.

Welcome as the gift was, to give as well as to receive, I wanted one day to eat of our own bounty, to put up pears and applesauce, to make apple butter for sandwiches and apple ketchup for pork roasts, to gather our own black- blue- and raspberries, to dry our own meaty tomatoes, and at last, to cut our asparagus and prepare them fresh from the earth.

Well, this year, we began. I put in 24 healthy young plants, and less than a week later, up came the tiny, delicate fronds, no bigger than a pencil lead, but unmistakably asparagus. What a joy!

Asparagus is a member of the fern family, and the asparagus that grace our Easter or Passover tables are simply the buds of these same fern fronds. In fact, some say that the Latin word for ‘sprinkle’, as in the phrase “Asperges me, Domine,” used in Catholic worship, comes from the plant name; or that the word comes from the use of that plant for sprinkling. Who knows? All I know is, whenever the priest goes by sprinling us with Holy Water, chanting, “Asperges me, Domine,” I get as hungry for asparagus as for a blessing.

Anyway, asparagus starts small. Our first sprouts were the size of a wooden pencil lead. In fact, for the first two or three years, the gardener can’t collect any asparagus at all, but must allow the plant to gain strength and breadth; first so that the plants will be suitable for the table, but also to protect the plants themselves.

They are living creatures, even though they are not animals or humans; so as much as is possible, we should be good to them; and in return, we can count on their contributing delicious variety to our dinners, and healthy phytochemicals and minerals to our diets.

I meet a lot of people who tell me, “I don’t know how to grow things. Is it hard?” No, it’s not, not if you start off right. As I keep saying-- and will keep saying, so expect it-- gardening is all about the soil, rather than the plants. You can buy the most expensive plants you like, and tuck them into the ground and water them like mad, but unless you’ve properly prepared your soil, your plants are doomed.

For example, here in North Texas where I live, both our soil and our rain are alkaline. So unless you’re willing to plant xeriscape plants—that is, plants that have been living here since Plato expounded on the rocky hills of Greece, you’d better be ready to add a whole heck of a lot of peat moss and at least one bag of expanded shale to every one of your 4’ X 8’ garden beds.

In places where the soil is sour and acid, you will need to lime your soil. When we lived in a place like that, I used to crush my eggshells and add them to the soil wherever I wanted to grow bulbs (tulips, daffodils, crocus, etc.) I found that it helped immeasurably. Lime (oyster and clamshells, limes itself, and eggshells) sweetens acid soil, while expanded shale, peat moss, pine needles and coffee grounds tone down the sweetness of alkaline soil, making it more acidic. Tea or opened tea bags are good, too, but you can get free coffee grounds from Starbucks simply for the asking, so it’s smart to go that route, too.

What’s important to understand is that plants can only take up nutrients from the soil if that soil is at the proper pH. If it’s too acidic, some plants will wither and die; if too alkaline, others will shrivel and yellow and die. But if the soil is at the proper pH, and you plant all the plants who like the same pH, your whole bed will love you, and thrive like the dickens.

So what do we want here?

What you want, what every avid gardener wants, is a beautiful neutral 7 on the acid-alkaline scale. Of course, gardenias, lilacs, blueberries, azaleas, and many other plants prefer a slightly more acid soil, while others, like lilies, asparagus, and numerous other beauties prefer a slightly alkaline soil. What to do, what to do?

The first thing to do is to test your soil. One way is to take 1 Tbsp. samples from several places in your garden and put them in a canning jar or clean jelly jar. Add fresh water to the top and stir thoroughly. Then, using your soil test kit, follow the directions for determining just what your soil needs for optimum performance.

Keep your soil deeply dug, evenly moist and well-augmented with vermiculite, compost (your best friend!), greensand, and whatever other local amendments your soil needs to reach that ideal .7. You’ll be glad you did! And once you’ve grown your asparagus, here’s a quick and easy way to serve them up!

Braised Asparagus

1 # fresh asparagus
½ stick of butter or the equivalent in margarine, ghi,
or other substitute
¾ tsp dried or 1-½ tsp fresh minced tarragon OR
¾ tsp dried or 1-½ tsp fresh minced marjoram

Wash the asparagus briefly under cold water, pat dry. Snap the stalks where they break naturally when you bend the asparagus in half. Reserve the lower stalks, cutting off the dry end with a sharp knife, and slicing into 1” pieces. Place in a pot covered with water and set on medium heat somewhere on the back of the stove. This is for later.

If you like, you can peel the bottoms of the asparagus stalks with a veggie peeler, laying them flat on a cutting board and simply sliding the peeler along from halfway the top to the bottom. I never do, unless I’m dealing with old store—bought veggies that have been sitting around for a while. Do whatever works for you about this.

Slice the asparagus tops on a slant, making pieces about 2” long, and reserve. In a wok or large frying pan, heat the butter/margarine/ghi until it’s melted and smells wonderful. Add the tarragon or marjoram and warm it until the essential oils are released, and you can smell that lovely fragrance as well. (Remember, we eat with all our senses, so the nose counts, too.) Add the sliced asparagus tops and stir-fry until they are crisp-tender. This is wonderful served with baked chicken, creamed onions and a nice light rice pilaf. Something luscious goes well as a dessert. I’d use ‘Mudgie’s Lemon Pie”* if I were you.

Oh, about the asparagus bottoms you’ve been boiling: put them through your hand-cranked food mill and save the soft pale-green material that squeezes through. The fibers go in your compost bucket. Waste nothing.

Boil down your asparagus water to 1 quart and add the soft pale green stuff from the food mill. Be careful not to let it stick to the bottom. If it tries, turn down your fire. That’ll teach the little dickens. Mix well and freeze or reserve in the fridge. You should have a thickened, cloudy, pale green liquid. Good.

Using a simple white sauce recipe, the asparagus-water mixture, a little whole milk, about ½ c white wine* (added carefully) and whatever leftover asparagus you may have, you have all the ingredients for a scrumptious asparagus soup to start off your next meal, or for a lovely lunch with a shrimp salad and whipped gelatin dessert. 1” croutons quickly fried in a little herb-flavored butter go prettily on top of the soup for crunch. So does a dollop of sour cream. Make sure your herbs all go well together, such as tarragon/parsley/ chives. Sage, oregano, basil and paprika are out. So is dill. Again, make sure you don’t boil the soup once the wine is added, or it may curdle.

*See ‘The Big Family Cookbook’ coming soon to www.youpublish.com/TheBigFamilyCookbook. Watch for it!

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