April means amazing asparagus. Those tasty spears are now springing up at area farms. Not only is asparagus good for you, it also has great refrigerator shelf life. We checked in with three Taste of Blue Ridge farmers to learn more about this crop, how to select, store, and prepare it, and even snagged a couple of recipes.
Amazing Asparagus and Ancient History
A distant cousin of the onion, asparagus was consumed by ancient civilizations. The garden version originated in eastern Mediterranean countries. And archeologists have found evidence that it was used for offerings in Egypt. It was also prized by the Greeks for its pharmaceutical qualities. But it was the Romans who put asparagus on the map. They would eat it as a side dish with fish or even as an entree.
Asparagus was served to the royal courts of Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries. Early American colonists brought asparagus from Europe, but it was not planted by commercial growers until the 1850’s. Today you can find it growing at Mackintosh Fruit Farm, Lydia’s Fields at Wheatland, and West Oaks Farm Market.
Cultivating asparagus takes time. Mackintosh Fruit Farm started their asparagus crop 10 years ago. “We knew it would take five or more years to start harvesting it if we wanted to open a U-Pick farm,” says Lori Mackintosh.
Lydia’s Fields planted their first asparagus crowns in 2013. “Most people plant crowns rather than seeds in order to get asparagus sooner,” says Owner Robert Schubert. “Ideally, you should wait three years after planting before beginning to harvest spears and even then don’t over-harvest for a couple of years.”
Asparagus has always been something West Oaks family members have enjoyed, so they decided to plant and sell it at their farm markets. Crowns are planted in the Spring but not harvested the first year so they can develop to their full potential, says Market Manager Levi Snapp (a 10th generation Shenandoah Valley farmer). “It’s not difficult to grow and it returns for multiple years,” says Levi. “At the end of each harvest season, we allow the plants to “fern out” to return nutrients back to the root for the following year.”
“Asparagus signals that Spring is budding,” says Lydia’s Robert. “I not only enjoy looking at, cooking, and eating asparagus, but I also love to see asparagus fronds, which come from un-harvested spears, grow and blow in the breeze. Going into the asparagus patch in July or August, when the fronds reach high and wide, is like entering a forest of giant trees.”
And while asparagus may be fairly easy to cultivate, it does require a lot of weeding. Says Robert, “If asparagus crowns are properly planted into rich, well-drained soil, the plants will grow. Weeding is key. And I mean constant weeding. Until it is really well established, it doesn’t compete well with weeds. Keep the bed as weed-free as possible. I suggest constantly cutting the weeds just below the soil surface and, eventually, they’ll grow tired of emerging and die. Don’t let weeds flower and go to seed.”
How to Select and Store Asparagus
When it comes to choosing asparagus, all three farmers recommend selecting smaller stalks with tight heads, which are more tender. “Look for asparagus that don’t have “woody” ends and are firm – not droopy or slimy,” says Robert.
If you’re not immediately eating your fresh asparagus, the best way to store it is in the refrigerator in an upright position with the ends in about an inch of water. You can also lightly cover the tops with plastic. The water is important because asparagus won’t keep well if it’s just placed in the crisper drawer.
Favorite Ways to Prepare Amazing Asparagus
There are so many ways to prepare asparagus. The West Oaks Farm family grills them in foil packs with butter and garlic salt or bakes them on a cookie sheet with olive oil, salt, and pepper. Then they add a little mozzarella cheese. They also like raw, chilled asparagus in Italian dressing marinade.
Lori and her husband Bill pair Mackintosh asparagus with beef and red wine. “It can be steamed, pickled, or grilled,” says Lori, “and other popular recipes include asparagus soup and quiche.”
“I enjoy asparagus any and every way,” says Robert “Raw, steamed, roasted alone with olive oil, salt, pepper, and maybe a bit of lemon juice, or roasted together with other vegetables such as beets and onions. I also like to eat asparagus with wild-caught salmon and rice. I’ve often steamed or roasted asparagus chilled it, and then cut the spears to toss into a salad.”
How to Get Picky Eaters (aka Kids) to Try Asparagus
While asparagus is rich in nutrients, it sometimes isn’t easy to get children to try new vegetables. Mary Snapp, owner of West Oaks Farm, offers this advice – “Our children loved asparagus. Just add some cheese. My favorite easy recipe is the microwave method. Enjoy!”
Mary Snapp’s Microwave Asparagus
- Layer asparagus in glass baking dish.
- Top with a few pats of butter and sprinkle garlic salt
- Sprinkle Parmesan cheese then microwave 6-7 minutes or until tender
- Add mozzarella to the top and microwave to melt
Kids are more inclined to eat something if they’ve had a hand in selecting it. Lori at Mackintosh recommends bringing your family to the farm to hunt for asparagus in the fields. And Robert’s advice? “Assure them it tastes nothing like broccoli or Brussel sprouts, both of which many kids seem to dislike. Tell them that the Romans ate lots of asparagus.”
And for the budding scientists, tell them about the sulfurous chemical compound mercaptan found in asparagus that makes urine smell different. Yes, it’s a little gross – but if it gets your kid to try a new vegetable, it’s worth a shot.
An Amazing Asparagus Recipe
Amy Page, Farm Manager for Lydia’s Fields, gave us this delicious recipe for amazing asparagus. Give it a try!
Asparagus on Toast
There are essentially three components to this recipe – steamed asparagus, cheese sauce (béchamel sauce with cheddar melted into it), and toasted bread.
Ingredients: asparagus, water
- Wash asparagus spears/stalks and snap off the ends (compost them!)
- I prefer to use a vegetable steamer basket, but it’s not required. Put about 3-4” of water into a saucepan and add asparagus stalks.
- Place a lid on the saucepan and steam over medium heat until the stalks are tender (about 6-8 minutes). Check tenderness with a fork. You don’t want your veggies to be mushy, just tender.
- Once stalks are tender, turn off the heat and empty the water out of the pan. Keep the lid on so the veggies stay warm.
Cheese Sauce (béchamel sauce with cheddar)
Ingredients: 2 tbsp butter, 2 tbsp all-purpose flour, 1-1/4 cup milk, 1/2 cup cheddar cheese, salt & pepper to taste
- Over medium heat, melt the butter and stir in flour to make a paste.
- Slowly add milk, making sure to incorporate it into the paste as it’s added. The mix will thicken as it heats up. Stir constantly so it doesn’t stick or burn.
- Add the shredded cheese and stir until it is thoroughly melted. Salt and pepper to taste.
Ingredients: I like to use whole wheat or multigrain bread, but you may use any kind of bread
- If the loaf is not pre-cut, slice it.
- Toast bread until it is golden brown on both sides.
- Place toast on a plate, top it with asparagus, and add the cheese sauce on top of the spears.
How to Get Your Amazing Asparagus
Mackintosh Fruit Farm: At the time this article was written, Mackintosh Fruit Farm was not operating its U-Pick fields due to COVID-19. But you can order asparagus and other tasty farm treats through their new Barn2Door online store. Visit the farm’s website for details.
Lydia’s Fields: There are many ways to purchase, including Lydia’s Veggie Share 2020. This is the farm’s CSA (community supported agric2ulture) program. Full and half shares are available, beginning in May. You can also call (540) 822-0353 to place an order for farm pickup. There’s a Local Line Shop and you can order through MarketMaker as well.
West Oaks Farm Market: You’ll find asparagus available at both West Oaks Farm Market locations. And be sure to check out their CSA program as well for more good eating.