A celebration of spring asparagus

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In the mid-1960s, I enrolled at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, a hotbed of liberal education (or as Antiochians themselves like to say, bootcamp for the revolution). Antioch College fell on hard times in the later years of the century. It had become part of a university whose administration no longer saw the value of a small, innovative liberal (in every sense of the word) arts college. They decided to close the residential college and invest the university’s resources entirely in programs for commuters and in distance learning. Alumni rallied and raised enough to take over the college name and property from the university but before the deal was final the college closed, in June 2008. Antioch reopened in 2011 as an independent, residential college. The revived Antioch will see its first graduates next year.

One of Antioch’s goals is to teach the skills needed for sustainable living, and the college practices what it preaches. Antioch has a working farm that produces much of the food for the college kitchen. Every month the alumni newsletter includes a piece called “From Antioch Kitchens.” This is the latest, written by kitchen director Isaac DeLamatre.

As a reward for surviving a long and brutal winter, spring’s bounty brings us a magnificent vegetable. Asparagus officinalis, whom we know colloquially as asparagus, begins punching through the thawing soil when temperatures finally begin to hover around 50 degrees.

While the rest of the garden is still shaking off winter residue, the asparagus harvest rolls in. As a harbinger of spring it is one of the very first locally available vegetables and is one of my favorites.  I enjoy the grassy, juicy flavor and appreciate its gastronomic versatility. It holds a symbolic significance to the changing of seasons (and the promising relief of more hospitable temperatures).

I think what I admire most about asparagus are the values that it represents. Asparagus embodies the practice of patience, one of the most admirable and sought-after virtues. The plant produces edible shoots for a short period of time only once a year; the wait in and of itself is a lesson in patience. But not only is there a yearly intermission between crops, the plant does not produce viable shoots for three to five years after planting.

A long-term investment

The planting of asparagus is a long-term investment of time, one that has been known to pay off for upwards of 100 years. So far is it removed from the modern ideas of instantaneous gratification and planned obsolescence! Asparagus appreciates attention and pampering; it likes its growing beds to be free of all other weeds and plants, and enjoys a generous top dressing of compost and leaf mulch every year. I feel that the plant’s cultural attitude is to be held in high regard and that asparagus has a lot to teach us if we are willing to listen and learn.

One of our most recent preparations of asparagus in the Kitchen involved lemon vinaigrette. It is a refreshing and simple composition that can be served warm or cool as a side or starter to any spring time meal.

Select evenly sized shoots. When I cook them I like them to all be the same size but the size that I choose for each batch falls within a range. I only accept pencil-sized to magic marker-sized asparagus. Any stalks smaller than a pencil shouldn’t have been cut in the first place and are a waste of everyone’s time. Parts of the plant that small need to be left alone so that the young plant it came from will stay healthy.

Anything larger is too woody and fibrous with therefore less usable stalk. The really big ones are good for using the asparagus tips in stir fries or soups. I like the stalks to be no more than six inches tall—when they get taller, the crowns start to branch out and they are not as tender.

Taller or longer stalks also mean I am buying a bunch of unusable product that I will trim off so that the stalks fall within six inches long. It is a general courtesy the grower should have extended so that I would not pay for more than I could use.

Some people like to peel asparagus. I generally do not.

After the vegetable is trimmed and washed it can be cooked in a variety of ways. For this pairing I like to steam or blanch it.

Tips for a successful vinaigrette

By slowly adding the oil to the vinegar, we are creating an emulsion. Two liquids that would ordinarily separate are going to allow for the fat (oil) to become suspended in the vinegar. Our emulsifying agent, in this case mustard, will prevent the oil and vinegar from separating or “breaking.”

When successful, we should end up with a viscous opaque liquid that holds its form as a sauce. An unsuccessful attempt will break. It will resemble an immiscible oil/vinegar project from science class.


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