Tender asparagus spears signal the arrival of spring

Intro By Pam George
From the April 2014 issue

asparagusWhile strawberries are still ripening on the vine and green onions have their bulbs buried in the ground, one leggy vegetable is ripe for the picking.

Asparagus is the true sign that farm stands are open for business. In fact, the Fifer Orchards’ Dewey Beach location opens only when the asparagus is ready, anytime from March to mid-April.

Those in the know agree that area asparagus packs a tastier punch than supermarket spears purchased in winter or summer.

“It’s similar to tomatoes in that respect,” says Mike Fennemore, whose family owns Fifer Or-chards, which is based in Camden-Wyoming. “There’s a huge difference in the flavor profile. The asparagus you see in winter is from South America and has to travel a long way, then [is] kept in storage.”

Growing the popular veggie takes patience. Fifer farmers dig deep trenches to plant the “crowns,” the root system of a year-old asparagus plant, which is grown from seed.

The baby perennial plants are left alone for two to three years. The first spears extend, the pointed tops open, and then out grows the woody support system for the ferns that nourish the crown.

As with fruit trees, “you have to let it develop a root system,” Fennemore explains. “If you harvest, you’re robbing the plant of energy.” (If coddled properly, the plant can produce stalks for up to 30 years.)

Asparagus is a cool-weather crop. Spears start to poke through the soil when the dirt warms to about 50 degrees. When harvested, they’re between 5 and 9 inches long.

Fifer, which devotes 8 acres to the crop, sells about half its harvest to supermarkets, includ-ing Wegmans, a large chain with stores from Massachusetts to Virginia. Some of the harvest goes to the Delaware Farm to School initiative, which brings locally grown fruits and vegetables directly to school meal programs. “Kids love it when it’s grilled with olive oil, salt and pepper,” Fennemore says.

You’ll find the rest at the Fifer Orchards’ market in Dewey Beach and at its Camden-Wyoming location. Fifer also participates in the Rehoboth and Lewes farmers markets.

When shopping for asparagus, look for spears with tight tips. If the cut ends look fresh, just stand them in water or wrap with a paper towel to store. If they’re calloused, create new cuts and add to water.

Like those school students, Fennemore enjoys asparagus cooked on the grill. Here’s a simple Food Network recipe that produces an elegant side dish. The original instructions call for trimmed and peeled asparagus, but Fennemore and his wife, Tracy (a dietician), aren’t fans of peeling the skin on the lower sections, as nutrients are lost. In any event, you may need to cut or snap off any tough, lighter-colored ends, which are tough and fibrous.

Grilled Asparagus Spears

(Serves four)

1    pound of fresh asparagus
4    tablespoons of olive oil
1    teaspoon of salt (and pepper if you wish)

Preheat a grill. Place the asparagus on a plate. Drizzle oil over the asparagus and turn spears until they are coated. Sprinkle with salt and turn again.

Place asparagus directly on the hot grill for about five minutes. Every minute or so, roll each spear a quarter turn. Asparagus should begin to brown in spots, which indicates that the natural sugars are caramelizing. Just don’t let it char. (Dripping oil may cause flare-ups, so keep a glass or spray bottle of water handy to spritz the coals, if necessary.)
Remove the vegetables from the grill, and serve immediately.

Tip: Eating spears with your fingers enhances the experience!


A Salutary Treat

Asparagus is both tasty and nutritious. Consider that:

  • there are just three calories in each spear
  • it lacks fat and cholesterol
  • it’s a good source of potassium, fiber and folic acid (a B vitamin)
  • it contains glutathione, an antioxidant
  • Asparagus is also a natural diuretic. Speaking of which, why do some of us sniff a pungent perfume in the bathroom after eating a few stalks? Credit odor-producing chemical compounds. (Such esteemed writers as Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Marcel Proust have noted the fragrance in their novels.) If you catch a whiff, consider yourself special. Only about 22 percent of humans have the DNA “boost” that lets them sense the scent, according to one survey of asparagus lovers.