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The Farmer and the Foodie: Going all-out for asparagus

Mar./Apr. 2010 California Country magazine

Glen Ikeda, the farmer, and Gwen Schoen, the foodie, discuss asparagus.




The farmer: Glen Ikeda farms on 40 acres in Auburn with his brother, Steve. They also manage their family’s markets in Auburn and Davis (www.ikedas.com). The foodie: One of food writer Gwen Schoen’s favorite pastimes is talking to farmers at farmers markets, which she says helps her gain a greater appreciation for the food she serves family and friends. Questions or comments? Write to info@californiacountry.org.

Farmer: Asparagus grows well in this state, from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta of Northern California to the irrigated desert areas of Southern California. The crop peaks from February through April, but favorable weather conditions can extend the season through June. Asparagus needs moisture to flourish so as soon as the weather heats up, it begins to turn woody and seedy.

When buying asparagus, plan on about 8 ounces for each serving. Look for plump, straight, bright green spears with tips that are tight and compact. Early in the season the tips can have a slightly purple tinge. The exception would be white asparagus, which is grown under a cover of loose soil to protect it from sunlight. To keep asparagus fresh for two to three days, wrap in a wet paper towel inside a plastic bag and store in the crisper drawer of your refrigerator. For longer storage, stand the spears, cut end down, in about an inch of water. Cover with plastic wrap and keep refrigerated.

Foodie: Since the season is short, it’s best to enjoy asparagus while you can. Fortunately that doesn’t take much effort on the part of the cook. To separate the tender stems from the white, fibrous stalk, bend the stalks until the white ends snap off. The breaking point is where stalks are naturally tender.

Rinse the stalks under cold, running water, holding the tips up to force out any loose soil. It’s not necessary to peel the stalks. The easiest cooking method is to place cleaned stalks in a covered skillet of boiling water or in the top of a vegetable steamer. Cooking takes just a few minutes, depending on the size. Remember, asparagus will continue to cook after the spears are removed from the heat, so take them out of the water before you think they are done. The most important rule is not to overcook. One of my favorite cooking methods is to blanch stalks for a minute, then brush them with olive oil and finish them off on the grill.

Farmer: In my opinion, larger stalks are more tender and have more flavor than smaller ones. But it’s really a matter of personal preference. Just be sure to get your fill of California asparagus during the short season.

It's triple A season

California farmers call this the “triple A season” because—along with asparagus—artichokes and avocados also peak in March. It’s a good time to find rhubarb, kale and chard, too. Citrus is at the end of its season, but the fruit you find now has been on the trees longer so the flavor is at a peak.

Here are a few more things you should know about the three A’s:

Asparagus

  • California grows just over 50 percent of the U.S. asparagus crop, which amounts to nearly 30 tons annually.
  • Under perfect conditions, asparagus can grow up to 10 inches in 24 hours.
  • Ancient Egyptians and Greeks considered spring asparagus shoots to be a rare delicacy which should be reserved for nobility.
  • Asparagus is an excellent source of folate, which is good for heart health.

Artichokes

  • Virtually all the artichokes grown in the United States come from California.
  • Marilyn Monroe was crowned Miss California Artichoke Queen in 1947.
  • What’s the official vegetable of Monterey County? You guessed it! And Castroville, a small town in that county, is the self-proclaimed “Artichoke Center of the World.”
  • Artichokes are a great source of disease-fighting antioxidants. Research shows that cooking actually increases their antioxidant content.

Avocados

  • California farmers grow seven varieties commercially, but the rich, buttery Hass is by far the most popular.
  • Avocados are also called alligator pears. (Take a look and you’ll see why!)
  • Avocados ripen best off the tree. To speed the process, place in a plain brown paper bag and store at room temperature until the fruit yields to gentle pressure—usually two to five days.
  • There are about 7,000 avocado groves in California, producing about 90% of the nation’s crop.

Help for your Hollandaise

Asparagus and Hollandaise sauce are perfect partners. But don’t let Hollandaise sauce intimidate you! Like all egg-thickened sauces, the basic rule is to use low heat. Cook it in the top of a double-boiler over simmering, not boiling, water and remove it from the heat as soon as it begins to thicken. If the sauce does curdle, the quick fix is to add two tablespoons of boiling water and beat it vigorously until it is smooth again.

Hollandaise can also be made ahead. Place it in a small bowl and press a piece of plastic wrap to the surface to prevent a skin from forming. Store it in the refrigerator and just before serving place the bowl of sauce in very hot water. Stir it occasionally until the sauce is warm.

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