Asparagus is spring's tipping point

Versatile vegetable is welcome sign of changing seasons

  • Chef Cindy Wolf, of Charleston Restaurant, with one of her favorite asparagus dishes-fresh white asparagus, whole grain mustard and chive beurre blanc and Vermont goat cheese.
Chef Cindy Wolf, of Charleston Restaurant, with one of her favorite… (Kim Hairston, Baltimore…)
March 22, 2014|By Susan Reimer, The Baltimore Sun

If you were a 19th-century Frenchman, you would likely be served three courses of asparagus during your prenuptial dinner. The vegetable with the suggestive shape, writes Helen Yoest in "Plants with Benefits," was thought to stir amorous feeling.

Little did the French know then, confides Yoest, the author of a book on aphrodisiac plants, but asparagus is rich in folic acid, which boosts histamine production — which helps on wedding nights.

The benefits of asparagus, she writes, "seem to be in that gray area between actual aphrodisiac effects and the power of suggestion."

Whatever asparagus suggests about sex, it certainly heralds spring.

One of the very first gifts from the garden, its spears begin to emerge as soon as the ground temperature reaches 50 degrees. During the following six weeks or so, as spring progresses, asparagus can grow so fast that it can require cutting twice a day on some farms.

Once a high-priced darling in the produce section (and an unappetizing soggy mess in a can), asparagus from Peru and Mexico is plentiful all year round. But nothing compares to the asparagus at the farmers' market during the brief window in spring that opens at the end of April.

"I just love it," said Cindy Wolf, executive chef at Baltimore's Charleston restaurant. "It has such an unusual flavor. You can't compare anything to it. Even the way it grows is kind of amazing."

Wolf grew up picking and eating asparagus from her grandmother's garden, where the same plants likely produced for 15 to 20 years.

"We would boil it and saute it with a little bit of butter and salt," she recalled.

But when her mother, who was also a cook, prepared a canape with asparagus and blue cheese, "we thought it was so fancy."

Today, chefs and home cooks alike cook this versatile vegetable with confidence and invention. You can boil it, steam it, stir-fry it, roast it, saute it, serve it cold with a vinaigrette or pureed in a soup. There are even recipes for asparagus desserts.

It loves the salt of ham and pork and the tartness of lemon and the sweetness of strawberries. Sadly, the only thing it doesn't love is wine. It is so difficult to pair, said Wolf's business partner and wine expert Tony Foreman, "because it is always the strongest element."

If diners at Charleston are lucky this spring, Wolf will recreate an asparagus and caviar appetizer she savored at Paris' elegant La Tour D' Argent restaurant. "Decadently wonderful," is how she described it.

That's not how many of us might describe our asparagus memories. For years, its reputation suffered because of its canned version, which emerged as a strong-smelling, stringy mush.

"And I think it was lost in the commercial farming shuffle," said Timothy Dyson, executive chef of Bluegrass in South Baltimore. It is a labor-intensive crop that requires perfect timing and high-speed transportation to market.

The United States used to grow so much asparagus it had enough to export. Today, fewer farms are dedicating acreage to the crop, and the country is importing more and more. Cheap labor south of the border also provides tough competition for California farms.

But in Maryland, the sandy soil of the Eastern Shore provides the perfect medium for growing asparagus.

"Now we are close to local farmers and we can taste real asparagus, with all its freshness and flavor," said Dyson. Asparagus benefits from our new fascination with farm-to-table and also with the movement to eat seasonally, he said.

Dyson likes to marry asparagus with a salty cheese and a poached egg for brunch or wrapped in lardo, which is fatback cured with rosemary and spices, as an appetizer.

Baltimore's seemingly endless winter has chefs, foodies and home cooks itching for asparagus, the vegetable garden's version of a robin.

"I am so done with root vegetables," said Dyson.

Wolf is ready for spring's asparagus, too. "We will celebrate asparagus for three weeks," she said. "But when it is done, it is done. I won't serve it again."

Until next spring, of course.

susan.reimer@baltsun.com

twitter:@SusanReimer

Roasted green asparagus with pork medallions

Serves 4

2 pounds green asparagus

Olive oil

3 tablespoons white balsamic vinegar

1 tablespoon sugar

2 pounds pork tenderloin

9 ounces cherry tomatoes

Salt and white pepper

Parmesan shavings

Peel the lower third of the asparagus and remove the tough ends

Heat the oil in a pan and fry half of the asparagus until just cooked. Remove the asparagus and keep it warm. Fry the remaining asparagus and add it to the first portion.

Season the asparagus with salt and pepper. Pour the oil out of the pan, but do not rinse. Stir vinegar and sugar into the pan until the sugar is dissolved, then drizzle over the asparagus. Keep warm.

Cut the pork into 1-inch slices. Season with salt and pepper and fry in the same pan for 4 minutes per side.

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