So many of my fondest memories of the last few years are attached to types of produce—I guess one could say that the changing varietals and seasonality of produce has been the rhythm of my life. When I think of asparagus, I remember how I used to hoard the profusion of rubber bands that came on the bunches and make giant, heavy rubber band balls that even the august executive chef could not resist bouncing off the floor a few times. I remember the perfect and delicate dish of shaved ribbons of asparagus, shaved parmesan, and a simple lemon vinaigrette. I remember peeling stripes into the larger part of the stalks and how every cook did it a different way to avoid getting peeled part re-stuck to the stalk and to prevent the area from becoming a stripy green mess. Cedric would prop his asparagus stalk onto a little mixing bowl. Robin just went for it and dirtied the whole table. My solution as a pastry cook was obvious—parchment paper. And afterward, I remember going into the walk-in refrigerator and pilfering these semi-peeled asparagus and eating them raw—a wonderful, wonderful treat.
I thought that in doing research for these articles, I would be so in tune with the growing schedule that I could not be surprised, and yet here I am. Asparagus got me again. Asparagus is always a surprise—the way the funny looking little scape pokes its head out of the otherwise bare dirt and the way it appears without warning in the market with incredible abundance. This year, especially, because of the late cold snap, I was amazed when I walked into store, and there was a giant five foot pyramid of asparagus in boxes at the front of the produce area.
One usually associates such delicate qualities to annual plants, young and fresh each year, but that is not the case with asparagus. This plant, a member of the lily family, is a perennial. The rhizomes (the horizontal roots from which the plant grows) often do not reach their producing peak for several years, and a well cared for plant can generate beautiful asparagus for up to fifteen years.
Asparagus was first grown in the Mediterranean region. The earliest evidence of its cultivation is in Egyptian freizes dating to 3000 B.C. The ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans used it both for culinary and medicinal purposes, eating it fresh in the spring and drying it for consumption in the winter. It is a rich source of folate, potassium, and vitamin C. In the oldest surviving cookbook, “De re coquinara” a fourth century Roman anthology of recipes, there are instructions for cooking asparagus. One of Louis XIV’s many famed excesses was that he had several greenhouses built expressly for the production of this beloved vegetable. Asparagus made its way to California in the mid-nineteenth century where it has thrived since. The sandy delta soil is ideal for its cultivation, and California leads the country in asparagus production.
Durst Organic Growers is a fourth generation farm at the mouth of the Capay Valley that produces some of the area’s most beautiful asparagus. Jim and Deborah have overseen this bountiful farm since the early eighties where their actions are dictated by this philosophy: “Feed the soil and the soil will feed the plants.” They will be harvesting within the next ten days, a hair later than normal, because of the recent cold air, but their patience in waiting for the peak of readiness is a testament to their dedication to providing produce of only the highest quality and taste (many less principled farms rush to harvest produce as early as possible to maximize their sales). The harvest will continue through May, and then their focus will turn to tomato production. They boast a wide selection of lovely, sweet cherry tomatoes in the early summer and heirloom tomatoes in the months that follow, then melons after that.
It’s raining on a grey Wednesday morning in March, and I just wrote the word melon. Asparagus will do that to a person—make one look forward to the warmer months and the bounty they bring in a very, very big way. Here we go, people. Spring is upon us.
Learn more about the Durst Organic Growers on their website.