On the wild side Asparagus: Like April showers and May flowers, the arrival of this slender green vegetable is a sure sign of spring



It's strawberries in June, corn in July and oysters in September. But if it's spring, the Queen of Foods, for most people's money, is asparagus.

The slender green stalk with the distinctive flavor, which starts appearing on grocery shelves and restaurant menus about this time of year, is actually a member of the lily family. Beloved by chefs, gardeners and home cooks, this versatile edible shoot can be steamed, stir-fried, blanched, sauteed or roasted, and it goes well in appetizers, salads, soups and entrees.

"I just love asparagus," said Cindy Wolfe, chef at Savannah at the Admiral Fell Inn in Fells Point. "It is one of the greatest seasonal foods."

"It's a real season opener," said David Joachim, editor of the new "Prevention's The Healthy Cook: The Ultimate Illustrated Guide to Low-Fat Food" (Rodale Press, April 1997, $27.95). Asparagus, as befits its season, is "wonderfully light and fresh-tasting," he said.

Michel Tersiguel, chef de cuisine at Tersiguel's in Ellicott City, agrees that asparagus is great, and that its seasonality is part of its appeal. "When it comes in season, people just go crazy. I worked in California the last five years, and we just waited for this time of year. It's the coming of spring, like flowers opening up."

Although a global market means most vegetables are available year-round, asparagus is still at its peak in April and May and June, when fresh supplies are arriving from California -- the country's biggest producer -- and Washington state. California produces 100,000 to 110,000 pounds of asparagus a year, 75 to 85 percent of the U.S. total. That's about 3.2 million to 3.3 million 30-pound cases, most of it from the San Joaquin Valley east of San Francisco Bay.

Asparagus was known to the ancient Romans, but wasn't really cultivated until the 17th century, when Louis XIV of France -- that style setter also known as the Sun King -- developed a taste for it.

It has been in California since about the 1850s, according to Bill DiPaoli, manager of the California Asparagus Commission trade group, but was little known as recently as 35 years ago. The crop has been growing in popularity in recent years, partly, he noted, because "the government has been advocating to the public the virtues of consuming fresh vegetables."

Also, DiPaoli said, since the late 1980s, more and more of the harvest is being exported. Switzerland, Germany and Japan are the three biggest buyers of American asparagus.

Difficult to grow

More people might grow asparagus, and the people who grow it might grow more, if it weren't such a difficult crop, DiPaoli said. "Asparagus is a highly labor-intensive crop. I like to say we fondle our spears no less than a mother would handling her infant."

Asparagus is still cut by hand. "If you break the tip off, it has no market value," DiPaoli said, "so we have to be very careful."

Right behind the pickers are the tractors, which carry the cut asparagus away to be immediately sorted, packed and cooled (to remove the field heat). Depending on how far it has to go, asparagus may be just a day or so out of the field when it comes to market. Of course, people lucky enough to have a garden, or a farm stand open nearby, can get it minutes or hours out of the ground.

Some people prefer asparagus on its own, as a side dish. "I like it prepared pretty simply," Joachim said, "just steamed, with a little vinaigrette."

But, even he noted that one of his favorite asparagus recipes in the new cookbook is asparagus and couscous. "It's light and springlike," he said. He also likes crepes with asparagus and cheese sauce. (Those are two of more than 500 recipes in the book, designed to be a "teaching tool" on healthy cooking "even for people who don't particularly like to cook," Joachim said. "It's real food for real people.")

Wolfe, the Fells Point chef, is currently offering asparagus with grilled salmon and a tomato-basil relish. "I know people order the salmon because the asparagus is there," she said. She also serves asparagus and cheese roll-ups and asparagus tarts as appetizers, and makes asparagus soup.

The roll-ups are one of Wolfe's favorite recipes; the dish is an "oldie" she got from her mother. "You take white bread -- you don't want to be, like, cool about it, use Wonder Bread -- and cut the crusts off," Wolfe said. "Then you take out your rolling pin and flatten it. You blanch the asparagus -- it needs to be pretty limp, but not with that cooked-out, canned color. Then you mix a cup of cream cheese with about a third of a cup of blue cheese, and spread that on the bread. Put the [spear of] asparagus on the bread and roll it up. Brush it with melted butter -- sweet butter, don't use salted -- and broil it for 1 1/2 to 2 minutes, until it's golden. Watch it -- don't walk away from the oven."

She cuts each piece of bread into three pieces. Old-fashioned it may be, but Wolfe says "people go crazy" for the little treats. She estimates it will take at least 5 slices to satisfy each person.

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