Many moons ago I bought a package of asparagus seed thinking I’d grow a small patch as an experiment. So I planted the seeds the same way I planted carrots, figuring that carrots grew downward and asparagus grew upward.
Weeks went by. The only thing I saw was wispy green things which I mistook for new-to-me weeds — and quickly disposed of them. Later that season, whilst chatting with a seasoned gardener, I recounted my failed attempt (“clearly due to bad seed,” says I) and bemoaned not having the pleasure of eating one measly asparagus spear.
My friend doubled with laughter and proceeded to tell me how asparagus was not an annual crop; how it takes at least three years to establish an asparagus bed; how I should have bought “crowns” and planted them in a trench … and on and on.
Eventually, I did plant a field of asparagus (I was farming then) and learned a lot from this queenly crop. For sure, asparagus requires an investment of time and liberal amounts of patience, manure and compost. But the payoff is that an asparagus bed can produce for years.
Although it is possible to grow asparagus from seed (difficult and time-consuming), I recommend planting two year-old “crowns,” available at most local nurseries. Crowns are the size of a quarter. Under the crown, long fleshy foot-long roots hang like tentacles of an octopus. From the top of the crown, little tips start to emerge in the spring. These produce the asparagus spears that shoot out of the ground.
The first year, these shoots will be thin as a miniature reed of grass. The second year, they will fill out to the size of a pencil and by the third year some will be as plump as your index finger. By the way, to plant, dig a trench a foot deep and foot wide and spread the crowns 12-18 inches apart. Cover with a couple inches of soil and compost. As the shoots grow, gradually fill in the trench.
As the asparagus grows and gets taller and taller, the tips open and branch out into lacy ferns. Don’t cut them! They provide nutrients to the roots for next year’s crop.
Hmm. I didn’t mean for this to be a gardening lesson. So onto the cooking part!
Cooking Asparagus and a Bit of Trivia
Truly fresh asparagus is sweet and extremely tender. So just drop a batch into boiling water and cook uncovered for one minute. Of course, the older it is, the longer it takes to cook because the sugar content turns to starch and the fibres get a bit stringy. So cooking time can easily triple or quadruple if the asparagus is not “farm fresh.”
Asparagus can be traced back to Egyptian, Greek and Roman kitchens. They not only ate it fresh, but also dried it for winter use. Nutrition wise, it’s very low in sodium, low in calories, and contains no fat or cholesterol. Yet it’s a good source of folic acid, potassium, fibre, Vitamin C, beta-carotene and amino acid. It’s said to have a number of medicinal and healing properties.
Rule of thumb: One pound of asparagus has 18-22 medium-sized stalks and will serve 3-5 people (5/7 spears each). Chunked up into 1-inch lengths, one pound will give you about three cups.
One of the beauties of this vegetable is its versatility. Try cooking a batch, then cool and toss with a simple vinaigrette dressing and serve at room temperature. (Great for pot-lucks and picnics.) I also cut asparagus in chunks and add it raw to potato salad, green salad or pasta salad. It’s fun in stir fries, soups and sushi. It can be baked, boiled, steamed, sautéed or grilled. Oh yes, did I say you can eat it raw? As I’m writing this, I’m dipping fresh spears into a tuna dip. Crunch-crunch. Yum-yum. Your turn now.
Basic Asparagus Dip
1 C cream cheese
1 C sour cream
1/2 C Miracle Whip or Mayo
1/4 sweet onion finely chopped
1 tbsp curry
Mix well. Add and mix one can tuna (drained) or 1/2 C freshly grated parmesan cheese or 1/2 C crab meat.
1 pound asparagus
4 tbsp olive oil
2 cloves crushed garlic
salt and pepper
1/2 C Feta cheese crumbled
Place spears on cookie sheet. Sprinkle with garlic. Drizzle with oil. Season. Roll asparagus spears in the oil mixture. Bake at 400°F oven for 5 minutes. Shake the sheet, turning over the spears. Continue baking another 5 minutes or so. Add cheese. Serve immediately.
Asparagus and Ham Fettuccine
1 pound fettuccine noodles
2 tbsp olive oil (for pasta after it’s cooked)
3 tbsp butter
1 pound asparagus cut in 2 inch pieces
1 C cream (or milk)
1 C cream of mushroom soup
2 C cooked ham, cut in pieces
1 tbsp paprika
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1 C freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Bring large pot of salted water to a boil. Cook pasta for 8-10 minutes (until al dente). While that’s cooking, stir fry the asparagus in the butter for one minute. Add cream, soup, ham, paprika, salt and pepper and stir. Heat until hot but do not boil. When pasta is ready, drain, add olive oil, toss then serve with asparagus/ham mixture. Top with Parmesan cheese.
“Bunch of Asparagus ready to be cooked” iStock photo
“Field of new asparagus. Note how tips grow into ferns” iStock photo
“Tasty dish of baked asparagus with feta cheese” © Sandra Phinney
Sandra Phinney says
Oops. Something happened to my post. Goblins at it for desert guess.
Appreciate the feedback Phoenix (and yes, I’d rather eat the shoots rather than let them go to ferns).
Moira, I’ll be trying your cashew cream this weekend! Thanks for the link.
yum yum yum! i love love love asparagus and have found it to be a wonderful spring cleansing plant. if you want to dish it up animal-product-free, here are a couple more delish recipes:)
Phoenix Dunlap says
Thanks for the info re growing asperagus, my favorite springtime vegetable. I remember my grandmother’s large asperagus bed that she maintained year after year as a souorce of filler for rose bouquets. Perhaps I’ll grow my own, but I’ll eat the stalks rather than grow the ferns.