While I was harvesting nasturtium pods to brine for poor man’s capers recently, I came across a lovely surprise on our farm – a clump of fat asparagus all about the size of a sharpie marker.
Truly, I felt like I’d found fairies in the garden. I’d completely forgotten that we’d put in this crop a number of years ago and I’d long given up on ever harvesting more than a meagre few asparagus stems at a time. Much like strawberries it takes a while to for the crowns to gather strength in numbers and create a thicket underground or, in the case of strawberries, the mother to strike out many daughters conquering more territory.
For those of you new to growing asparagus, it takes at least 2-3 years for the clumps to expand and for the stems to become juicy and fat. I had prepared the bed all those years ago by loading it with compost and bladderwrack seaweed, burying it with almost a foot of soft mulch, then I bedded the crowns down and walked away, coming back to revisit twice a year to add compost and more mulch.
I’m one for growing many species, and cultivars of those species, to create as much biodiversity as possible. It’s not the most commercially viable practice at all, but by God do we eat well. So I’d planted a few different cultivars of green and purple asparagus in a few different beds where I had planted other perennials like lemon balm, mint, the aforementioned nasturtiums, aromatic salvias like the pineapple and fruity sages, bronze fennel as these herbs need very little maintenance and tend to crowd out any unwanted weeds all on their own.
If you have been enjoying the spring time return of this old friend in your garden you will understand my reverence. It is indeed an amazing thing to witness a shoot emerge and bolt with the flash of the day – they can grow upwards of 2cm in an hour on a hot day. But catch it before it gets too tall and woody or you will have to get your paring knife or potato peeler out to shave the outer skin from the bottom of the spear.
So, to cook or not to cook? If they’re not too reedy I don’t even bother to cook them, slicing them like young beans into a salad or as a crudité with a young garlic and anchovy bagna cauda. Considering they started to bolt with the harvesting of our garlic beds, it seemed a natural fit.
Now that we can finally harvest enough for all of us to eat more than a stalk or two each, I’ve been blanching them lightly enough just to bring the colour up to an emerald green or a deep amethyst purple and doing it in the style of the dim sum trolleys of a blanket of light oyster sauce, followed by the sizzle of garlic crisped up in rendered lard. Oh yes, they are the luxurious version of gai laan done this way.
Another way is to slice it into coins and toss into just cooked pasta with thinly shaved pecorino, guanciale and chopped flat leaf parsley – heaven.
You can also showcase very fresh asparagus by charring it briefly over coals and dressing it with a shallot vinaigrette – I warn you it’s highly addictive.
My kids have been loving this for their school lunches too, I’ve been sending them off with a soup thermos with rice and a quick stir fry of asparagus, garlic and prawns. One of the most delicious and easiest stir fries of my mother’s recipes that epitomises home cooking. In Thai I’ve always marvelled that it is called “Nohr mai farang”, literally translating to foreigner bamboo.
It makes perfect sense in that context to treat it like a young bamboo shoot which means to cook it quickly and enjoy it as close to its natural state as possible.
Stir fry of asparagus and young garlic
You can add any protein you wish to this, prawns are wonderful as is medium firm tofu.
A farmer’s market bunch of asparagus. Cut off any woody ends, shave off any tough outer skin and slice on an angle into bite size length.
5 cloves of young garlic, peeled and minced roughly
1tbs of olive oil, macadamia oil or rendered lard
1.5 tbs megachef oyster sauce
1 tbs mirin
1 tbs plum vinegar
Place fat into the pan or wok on high heat and wait until it is very hot, toss in garlic and brown just until golden then add asparagus and the seasoning and toss to cover the sauce over all the asparagus and immediately turn off the heat. Serve on its own or over rice.