FOOD: Celebrating asparagus — a sure sign of spring

These open-faced asparagus sandwiches feature prosciutto, roasted tomatoes and Gruyëre.
These open-faced asparagus sandwiches feature prosciutto, roasted tomatoes and Gruyëre. PHOTO BY EMILY RYAN
Asian asparagus salad pairs well with fish.
Asian asparagus salad pairs well with fish. Photo courtesy of Jill Ahern, Wolff’s Apple House

ASPARAGUS 411

Shopping tips

“If the stalks are slightly shriveled, it means it’s slightly older or drying out, so you want to avoid that,” said Ashley Wolff Pippin of Wolff’s Apple House.

“We store it and sell it in water. That does help prolong its life,” she added. At home, “make a fresh cut and place it upright in about an inch of water.”

Growing tips

“If you want to grow asparagus, you have to be patient. It’s a three-year process, and then you’re good for 15 years,” explained Lisa Leigh Bennett of Sugartown Strawberries. “The biggest mistake people make is they plant it and pick it when it comes up.”

Planting this year? “Don’t pick any” in 2018, said Bob Lange. In 2019, “pick for two weeks.” And in 2020, “you’ll be able to pick for two months.”

On a warm, sunny afternoon earlier this month, Bob Lange surveyed a three-quarter acre field and said, “Yeah, they’re coming.” Then he bent down, cut a spear and enjoyed his first asparagus of the season.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s thin or thick. If you pick it that day, it’s not going to be stringy,” explained “Farmer Bob” as he’s known at Sugartown Strawberries in Malvern.

“It’s flavorful. It’s yummo. It’s really healthy for you,” added Lisa Leigh Bennett, marketing and public relations.

Together they harvest 1,500 to 2,000 pounds of asparagus, which they “sell on the honor system on the front porch of the store,” she said.

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The price, $3 for a 1-pound bundle, hasn’t changed in years.

“We totally appreciate everyone supporting their local farm,” Bennett stressed. “That’s the biggest thing. That’s why we do it.”

Enjoy asparagus raw or roasted, as a side dish or main course.

“I’m old-school,” Lange admitted. “I like it steamed with a little butter, and I’m good to go.”

Find more than a dozen asparagus recipes in the farm’s cookbook from open-faced asparagus sandwiches to asparagus lasagna to crabmeat with grilled asparagus, tomatoes and orzo.

“They’re all my favorites,” Bennett described. “As a farmer, we eat what’s in season” — beginning with this sure sign of spring.

“The cool thing about asparagus is it’s typically one of the first vegetables available in our area,” said Ashley Wolff Pippin of Wolff’s Apple House, a farm market and garden center in Media. “It was always a celebrated thing.”

She sells about 300 pounds of local asparagus a week.

“I love that it’s good in a lot of different dishes. It’s a versatile food,” noted Pippin, who enjoys her mom’s Asian asparagus salad. “It’s a really nice side for a fish dish. I often make it when I make salmon.”

Back at Sugartown Strawberries, Lange shared some asparagus with Bennett. She smiled and said, “Bob and I have a competition: Who’s going to find the first purple one?”

Once in a while, white ones grow too – hidden under natural cover, getting heat, but not sunlight.

And “sometimes we find arrowheads in the field.”

Open-faced Asparagus Sandwiches

Ingredients

2 tablespoons basting oil

4 (1/2-inch) slices crusty bread

1 bunch asparagus, trimmed

¼ pound prosciutto, thinly sliced

¾ cup roasted tomatoes

1 cup Gruyère cheese, shredded

Instructions

Preheat oven to broil. Drizzle 1 tablespoon basting oil over bread slices. Place on baking sheet. Toast on center rack of oven about 5 minutes or until light brown. Watch carefully to prevent burning. Set aside. Reduce oven to 450 degrees. Toss asparagus with remaining basting oil in medium bowl. Place onto sheet pan. Roast on center rack 20 to 25 minutes or until crisp. Arrange prosciutto, asparagus and tomatoes on toast. Sprinkle with cheese. Return to oven until cheese melts, about 3 minutes. Serves 4.

RECIPE COURTESY OF SUGARTOWN STRAWBERRIES

Asparagus Lasagna

Ingredients

4 pounds medium asparagus, trimmed

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

Salt

¼ cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter

¼ cup all-purpose flour

1½ cups chicken broth, heated

½ cup water, heated

7 ounces mild goat cheese (such as Montrachet)

1 teaspoon freshly grated lemon zest or to taste

6 (7- by 6¼-inch) sheets instant (no-boil) lasagna

1 2/3 cup freshly grated Parmesan

1 cup heavy cream

Instructions

Preheat oven to 500 degrees. Cut the tips off each asparagus spear and reserve them. Cut the stalks of asparagus into ½-inch lengths. In each of two large, shallow baking pans, toss half the asparagus stalks with half the oil and salt to taste, coating them well, and roast them, shaking the pans every few minutes until they are crisp-tender, about 5 to 10 minutes. Set them aside. Lower the oven temperature to 400 degrees. In a saucepan, melt the butter, add the flour and cook the roux over moderately low heat, stirring, for 3 minutes. Add the broth and the water in a stream, whisking, simmer the mixture for 5 minutes and whisk in the goat cheese, zest and salt to taste, whisking until the sauce is smooth.

Arrange one sheet of pasta in each of buttered 9-by-13-inch baking dishes and spread each sheet with ¼ of the sauce. Top the sauce in each dish with ¼ of the reserved roasted asparagus and sprinkle the asparagus with 1/3 cup of Parmesan. Continue to layer the pasta, sauce, asparagus and Parmesan in the same manner, ending with a sheet of pasta.

In a bowl, beat the cream with a pinch of salt until it holds soft peaks. Arrange the reserved asparagus tips on the pasta, spoon the cream over the pasta and asparagus tips, spreading it with the back of a spoon and sprinkle the remaining 1/3 cup Parmesan on top. Bake the lasagna in the middle of the oven for 30 minutes or until it is golden and bubbling and let it stand for 10 minutes before serving.

RECIPE COURTESY OF SUGARTOWN STRAWBERRIES

Crabmeat with Grilled Asparagus, Tomatoes and Orzo

Ingredients

1 cup orzo pasta, prepared per package and drained

1 bunch asparagus (about 10 ounces)

4 teaspoons + 2 tablespoons basting oil, divided

½ pound plum tomatoes

Salt and pepper to taste

½ sweet yellow pepper, seeded and diced small

½ sweet red pepper, seeded and diced small

2 tablespoons finely chopped chives

¼ cup finely chopped Italian (flat leaf) parsley

1 teaspoon lemon pepper seasoning

1 (8-ounce) container backfin crabmeat

1 tablespoon mustard and 1 tablespoon mayonnaise, mixed

Instructions

Preheat grill on high 10 minutes. Toss asparagus with 2 teaspoons basting oil. Toss tomatoes with 2 teaspoons basting oil. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Clean grill with wire brush. Using soft cloth, coat grill grate lightly with vegetable oil. Adjust heat to medium. Grill asparagus and tomatoes, turning every 1 to 2 minutes, using tongs to keep produce intact, until lightly browned on all sides (about 5 minutes for asparagus; 3 minutes for tomatoes). Set aside for garnish. Toss cooked orzo with 2 tablespoons basting oil in medium bowl. Add red and yellow peppers, chives, parsley, lemon pepper seasoning and crabmeat; toss to combine. Spray 4 small, straight-sided ramekins with nonstick cooking spray. Press crabmeat mixture firmly into ramekins. Briefly chill. Garnish plates with mustard sauce, grilled asparagus spears and tomatoes. Invert ramekin to center crabmeat on salad plates.

RECIPE COURTESY OF SUGARTOWN STRAWBERRIES

Asian Asparagus Salad

Ingredients

1½ pounds fresh asparagus, trimmed and left whole

2 tablespoons soy sauce

1½ teaspoons sugar

1 tablespoon sesame oil

1 tablespoon rice vinegar

1 tablespoon sherry

½ teaspoon ground ginger

Lightly toasted almond slivers

Instructions

Steam the asparagus whole until crisp-tender, about 5 to 6 minutes. Plunge immediately into cold water to stop the cooking. Drain well and place in a shallow bowl. Whisk the remaining ingredients together (except the almonds) and pour over the vegetables. Refrigerate for at least ½ hour. Remove from the fridge and sprinkle with toasted almonds. Serve alone or with cooked rice.

RECIPE COURTESY OF WOLFF’S APPLE HOUSE