Archive for Wednesday, April 7, 1999

SLIM SHOOTS ARE SURE SIGN OF SPRING

April 7, 1999

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We started picking asparagus last week and each day find a little more to harvest. For some people daffodils are the herald of spring, but not at my house.

After the recent mix of rain and sunshine, the growth of our crop seems to be accelerating and I had to wonder Monday evening whether picking once a day is going to be enough. I encountered several spears that had been too small to cut the day before but had since shot up past the picking stage.

Asparagus is no crop to be planted by anyone who goes in for immediate gratification. The rule of thumb is that roots -- or crowns -- planted this spring will provide a reliable supply of edible asparagus in three years. Until then, many of the spears may be thin and spindly. Even those that appear ready for the table should be left in place to nurture the roots.

If you are patient enough to wait for the plants to mature, you will be able to continue harvesting asparagus for decades with minimal fuss. An asparagus patch planted in well-tilled soil needs only basic weeding and watering. Although many people use a liquid fertilizer on their asparagus, home gardeners have been feeding their asparagus for generations with salt.

You can begin salting a year after planting. One of my Rodale gardening guides prescribes sprinkling rock salt (NaCl) or pickling salt over an asparagus bed in quantities of 2.5 pounds per 100-foot row. Don't use iodized table salt or calcium chloride rock salt (CaCl). The salt, which should be applied in early spring before spears emerge or in mid-summer, helps the crowns resist disease and also improves growth.

The true reward for your effort and patience is in the quality of the asparagus you will harvest. Fresh-picked asparagus is more tender and flavorful than anything you can buy in the store. Its outer skin isn't tough and doesn't require peeling. What's more, the stalks don't turn woody until late in the season.

Because we like to let the flavor of asparagus stand on its own, we tend to eat it plain and undressed. A little butter, salt, pepper, and sometimes a squirt of lemon juice, are the only additions that I usually make. I always steam asparagus and have trouble imagining why anyone would boil it. Boiling dilutes the flavor and does funny things to the texture of the spears. If you're not careful, boiled asparagus can quickly deteriorate into strips of green mush.

Asparagus can be eaten hot or cold and, despite my preference for the unadorned spear, works well in combination with egg, creamy sauces and many white cheeses. I found the following recipe for ham-wrapped asparagus in Bert Greene's "Greene on Greens," which includes a huge chapter on asparagus. He suggests serving these little asparagus packets as a meal in themselves or as a component of lunch, brunch or supper.

Cravatta (Asparagus Ties)

16 medium asparagus spears, trimmed and peeled (if necessary)

lks don't turn woody until late in the season.

Because we like to let the flavor of asparagus stand on its own, we tend to eat it plain and undressed. A little butter, salt, pepper, and sometimes a squirt of lemon juice, are the only additions that I usually make. I always steam asparagus and have trouble imagining why anyone would boil it. Boiling dilutes the flavor and does funny things to the texture of the spears. If you're not careful, boiled asparagus can quickly deteriorate into strips of green mush.

Asparagus can be eaten hot or cold and, despite my preference for the unadorned spear, works well in combination with egg, creamy sauces and many white cheeses. I found the following recipe for ham-wrapped asparagus in Bert Greene's "Greene on Greens," which includes a huge chapter on asparagus. He suggests serving these little asparagus packets as a meal in themselves or as a component of lunch, brunch or supper.

Cravatta (Asparagus Ties)

16 medium asparagus speare ham slices.

Place two asparagus spears in the center of each ham slice. Fold the ham over the asparagus and arrange the packages in a lightly greased ovenproof serving dish, seam side down. Sprinkle the remaining Fontina over the top, and add a grating of pepper. Bake until lightly browned and bubbly, 15 to 20 minutes. Makes four servings.

-- When she's not writing about foods and gardening, Gwyn Mellinger is teaching journalism at Baker University. You can send e-mail to her at mellinger@harvey.bakeru.edu. Her phone number is (785) 594-4554.

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