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Asparagus is one of those vegetables that I feel really only gained its rightful dues in the last few decades. At least it did in my life. We didn’t often eat it when I was growing up, although I remember Grandma having a patch beside us and then later we planted one in garden #2, or The Bottom Garden, as we called it. We had three large gardens to feed our big family. Garden #1 or The Top Garden ( the elevation of our lawn was higher there) held the peas, beans, carrots, lettuce, radishes, and other sundry experimental crops that we were trying. One year that was peanuts, another year it was watermelon, cantaloupes, celery, and so on. Garden #2, The Bottom Garden, was filled with potatoes, and a row of asparagus and rhubarb bordering the edge. Strawberries rotated between these two gardens. Garden #3, or The Shop Garden was a long narrow garden full of corn, out in town beside my dad’s store fixture business. Hence the name, The Shop Garden. Makes sense, doesn’t it? We were all about making sense back then.
Later, when I had my own garden, I realized how much work was involved in growing asparagus. The war on weeds was never-ending. One time I turned my head to stare into the science fiction eyes of a praying mantis that landed on my shoulder. I confess that he won the staring match. In warm weather those stalks grew like bamboo. Eiyiyiyiyiyi! I learned to let it grow until it was at least 8″ tall, then snapped off those that were as thick as my finger, with the heads still nice and tight, just above the greyish part at the bottom of the stalk. Then I stood them upright in a box with a bit of cold water in the bottom and stuck them into the fridge. If they were too thin, I let them grow to become lovely tall ferny fronds to use in bouquets.
Some of my longtime favourites include eating it raw (try it – it tastes like raw peas!); asparagus quiche; creamed asparagus with hard-boiled eggs over toast; asparagus roasted at 450° or grilled, (use thick stalks for these) tossed with a little olive oil, balsamic vinegar, salt and pepper and sprinkled with Parmesan flakes; and asparagus wrapped in bacon or prosciutto, then grilled or roasted. Whatever you make, DO NOT OVERCOOK IT! Trust me, asparagus that has the life cooked out of it is a tragic thing, both in looks and flavour. It should still be a bright dark green when you’re done, and a little crisp. Wash the asparagus well, especially the heads, to remove the sand or ground. Cut off at least 1″ from the bottom of the stalks. If you’re boiling it, cook it in a skillet or something wide enough to accommodate the length of the stalks. Bring about 1 1/2 inches of water to a boil before adding the asparagus, then cook it uncovered. This helps to retain the fresh green colour, and deters overcooking. Cook in rapidly boiling water until they are all bright green, and you can just pierce them with a fork. Don’t add salt until you remove the asparagus from the water. Remove them immediately and place on a platter to hold in a warm oven until ready to serve.
More recently, I’ve been using them in salads and omelets. Recently, on a trip to the Outer Banks, NC, we stopped at a roadside stand and picked up asparagus. I knew it would be ready when we got home, but you know how it is – you always want what you don’t have right then, and I wanted asparagus! So one morning at our beach condo I made these open-faced breakfast sandwiches just for kicks, and they were good. Lucky you, you now get to make them too. In the evening I made a chefs salad and used the remaining lightly cooked and chilled asparagus in that. Locals, you don’t have to go to NC to get asparagus; I hear via the Martins grapevine that it’s ready at home, along with wild leeks and radishes. Yay! Spring is here!
Asparagus is okay, even good, if it’s thick, as long as it’s fresh and crisp. Don’t be afraid to buy thick stalks locally; they’re actually better for grilling that way. Really thin stalks are a result of very young or stressed plants, or overly hot weather, and can be stringy.
If you store the bunch upright with a little water in the fridge, it will keep up to a week without losing much flavour.
Asparagus, Ham and Egg on Toast
- 2 slices bread (I used sourdough)
- 2-4 slices old-fashioned ham
- 1/2 cup sliced sweet onion
- 8-10 stalks of asparagus
- 2 eggs, fried or poached
- sprinkle of cheese, your choice
DirectionsWash asparagus well and put 1 1/2 inches of water into a flat skillet with sides. Add asparagus when water is boiling. Remove when it is bright green and tender-crisp. Meanwhile, brown ham lightly in another skillet that was lightly brushed with butter. Remove and brown onions in the same skillet. Remove, and fry eggs lightly, still in the same skillet. Toast the bread and butter it if you wish. On two separate plates, layer 1 slice of bread, a few slices ham, onions, the asparagus and egg. Sprinkle with cheese and grind salt and pepper over all of it. Serve with sliced tomatoes or oranges, if desired.