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Asparagus is worth effort in garden and in kitchen

By Jonathan Levitt
Globe Correspondent / May 11, 2011

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Most of our vegetables are annual crops, grown from seed in the spring, and harvested a couple of months later. Not asparagus. To grow asparagus is to make a long-term commitment: to settle down on a piece of land, to dedicate a big chunk of space in the garden, to prepare the bed, and then to wait three years before there is anything to harvest. But when those three years are up, and you get asparagus, you have a crop that keeps coming. A well-prepared bed can last for decades and provide giant harvests every spring of sweet, juicy, bright green spears.

In early spring, the young shoots, which grow up from underground crowns and rhizomes, poke out from the soil. When they are 8 inches tall and thick as a finger, it is time to harvest. An established bed can be harvested for up to two months before being left to rest. The unharvested shoots will grow tall and feathery and then go to seed. They remain green all summer and then turn bright yellow in the fall. In the market, the sweetest and most tender spears — harvested locally at least through June — will be those whose buds are flat against the stalk.

In the kitchen, asparagus can be eaten raw or cooked. Shave the spears thinly and toss with a tart vinaigrette. Or steam them in a tall pot, their tips out of the water (a deep skillet also works well, in which case they lie flat). Then toss in more vinaigrette or top with a rich, buttery sauce like hollandaise. Leave them in the water for just a minute or two, then serve them right away, or transfer them to a bowl of ice water to stop the cooking. Asparagus can also be tossed in oil and grilled until slightly charred. Grilled asparagus is good Milanese-style, served with Parmesan cheese, a fried or poached egg, and a squeeze of lemon.

Stir-frying asparagus is another way to preserve the spears’ color and snappy texture. After blanching short pieces, cook them in a hot pan with shrimp and a spicy, gingery, Chinese-style sauce.

For a first course, make a soup of asparagus with bacon and chives. Sweat some spring onions (or use a sweet onion), then simmer with white rice and chicken stock. Add quickly cooked asparagus and rendered bacon, ladle into bowls, and sprinkle with finely chopped fresh chives. The soup is smoky and bright, tasting of the garden, ideal for lunch on a moody spring afternoon.

Jonathan Levitt can be reached at jon.levitt@gmail.com.