By LeAnn Locher, PQ Monthly
It’s time. The return of the variety of fresh green vegetables that are something other than kale. (Not that I have anything against kale. Some of my best friends are kale.) Spring has sprung and that means asparagus is showing up with gusto, both in our gardens and in the produce bins at the market. When my eye spies asparagus, I breathe in deeply and exhale, knowing I’ve made it through the long dark Portland winter and into the beautiful green promise of spring.
Asparagus is a wildly strange grower in the garden. While it takes a while to grow to the point of harvesting, its beautiful tall, airy fronds in the summer provide texture and movement in the veggie garden that few others do. I once saw a hedge of asparagus providing privacy between two tight city backyards and thought it was genius: edible, functional and beautiful. That can be a rare combination.
As with all produce, it’s best to grow varieties that are known to do well in our climate. Asparagus recommended by Oregon State University include Mary Washington, Jersey Knight, Jersey Giant, UC 157 and Purple Passion. Note about the purple asparagus: it has a higher sugar content than the green.
Because it’s a hardy perennial, meaning asparagus will come back every year, it’s important to site and prepare the bed well for transplanting your starts. Amend the soil with good organic compost, making sure to weed well. Asparagus does not do well in heavy soil with poor drainage. Plant early in spring, and do not harvest the first year, instead allowing the plants to grow and form their beautiful ferns. In the second year, you can harvest just a few shoots, but allow the rest to grow and develop. Once the third year comes, you can begin regular harvest until mid-June, allowing shoots to grow in the summer to feed and strengthen their roots.
Asparagus and tomatoes are good companion plants. Tomatoes repel the asparagus beetle, while asparagus repels some harmful nematodes that can affect tomato plants.
Asparagus is so versatile in the kitchen: you can keep it super simple or dress it up and put lipstick on it. Gruyere lipstick, that is…
Simple: Grill asparagus on a lightly oiled grill, sprinkle with salt and pepper, squeeze a lemon over it if you like, and call it done.
Take it up a notch: Stir fry it with spicy peppers and mushrooms, or lightly steam it and top with a lemon-tarragon cream sauce. (Tarragon is an early-spring herb.)
Everything goes better with gruyere: elegant, rich and delicious, an asparagus and gruyere tart is a harbinger of spring treat at our house.
Recipe: Asparagus + Gruyere Spring Tart
1 sheet puff pastry dough, thawed
1 lb thin asparagus spears, rinsed and trimmed
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1 cup shredded Gruyere
Preheat oven to 400 F degrees. Unfold the pastry dough onto a lightly floured surface, roll into a 14×10” rectangle and place onto a parchment lined baking sheet. Using a knife, score the dough 1” from the edge all around the rectangle and prick the dough with a fork all over. Using a pastry brush, spread the mustard on the tart within the border. Sprinkle gruyere evenly. In a single layer, place asparagus tightly, side by side, and alternating ends with each spear. Brush with olive oil, sprinkle salt and freshly ground pepper. Bake for 25 minutes or until pastry is puffy and golden.
And the question that always comes up when we talk about asparagus: “Why does it make my pee stink?” Asparagus contains certain compounds metabolized by our bodies that yield ammonia and sulfur products. Studies show the ability to smell this is genetic: some people can, some people can’t.
LeAnn Locher is an OSU extension master gardener and home arts dabbler. Connect with her and other like minded home arts badasses at facebook.com/sassygardener.