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The spring green

Sparagrass rules for a hundred good reasons

If one vegetable personifies spring, it’s asparagus. Those little bundles of beautiful green spears with their plaited tips resembling finely woven basketry or tiny chain mail say hello, aren’t you glad you made it through another winter?

Asparagus has no leaves per se, and that’s what creates those distinctive textured ends. They’re formed by asparagus’s peculiar branches – called phylloclades – that carry out photosynthesis and cluster near the growing tip of the immature stem. For that’s what you’re eating – a stem of a plant that’s a member of the lily family, and plants in the lily family are relatives of grasses.

Perhaps its subconscious echo of lilies and grasses are two more reasons why we associate asparagus so closely with spring, along with the fact that it’s one of the earliest crops to greet you, that is, if you’re successful at cultivating it, as my granddad was.

Even in the harsh climate in Edmonton, granddad delivered asparagus. Running through his garden in late summer and getting tickled by the fine feathery plumes, we kids had no idea this was the same plant that delivered those tasty spears in spring that made our pee stink. This peculiarity we weren’t the first to notice.

Harold McGee in his fine book On Food and Cooking cites the Treatise of All Sorts of Foods (circa 1700) written by the Frenchman Louis Lemery: "Sparagrass (I think that’s a much more appropriate name) eaten to Excess sharpen the Humours and heat a little; and therefore Persons of a bilious constitution ought to use them moderately: They cause a filthy (!) and disagreeable smell in the Urine, as every Body knows."

According to McGee, for a while there – about the mid-1950s, when we were running through granddad’s garden, to the 1980s – scientific theory had it that if you excreted the odorous methyl mercaptan after eating asparagus it was because you had a particular gene that rendered you a "stinker" so to speak.

Now scientists agree that everyone excretes methyl mercaptan after eating asparagus, it’s the ability to detect it that varies amongst us. Likely it’s a sulfur-containing amino acid, methionine, in the "sparagrass" that’s the culprit. But that certainly hasn’t put people off.

About 300 varieties of asparagus are native from Siberia to southern Africa. A couple of African species are grown as ornamental plants (who hasn’t had an asparagus fern in a planter?) Best known is the garden variety, asparagus offcinalsis , which thrives in subtropical and temperate climes, even Edmonton.

The tasty spears of this hearty perennial push up from heavy root masses from early spring until warm weather sets in. Some varieties will produce through to mid-summer. Either way, the plant must have a period of winter dormancy to be happy.

Asparagus does grow from seed, but it takes three years to produce spears, so most gardeners start it from roots. They are hearty creatures, living up to 20 years. For a small family, two dozen plants will keep you going.

For ages, literally, epicures have had a taste for asparagus. It was a delicacy in Greek and Roman times, an attitude that has carried forth to today even though it is a hugely successful commercial crop (ever notice how many grocery store flyers tout asparagus as "the" vegetable for Valentine’s Day?). However, when demand still outstripped supply, "poor man’s" substitutes like young blackberry shoots and leeks were used.

France, Italy and the U.S. are the big asparagus growers today. It will often grow in soil too salty for other crops – kind of a boon for growers who render their soils alkaline from over-production. Since they grow at different rates, the spears must be harvested by hand, furthering the aura of delicacy and exclusivity. They’re usually cut when they are 6-8 inches high, at a point between the surface of the soil and 1.5 inches deep. Cutters have to be careful not to injure the crowns or the spears developing beneath the soil surface.

At the start of the season, spears will be ready about every three days, and then as the soil warms, you can harvest daily. Spears taller than 8 inches have pretty much passed prime time, so wise growers let them develop into foliage, which feeds the big root system all summer long.

As for we wise pickers of asparagus, most of us look for bundles of the thinner, younger spears when selecting our bundles of green from the tempting displays this time of year. Not so Pierre François de La Varenne, chef to Henri IV and France’s first great culinary writer.

In his Le Cuisinier François (1651) he gives the following recipe, which is surprisingly contemporary, much like our asparagus with hollandaise: Choose the largest asparagus, scrape them at the bottom and wash. Cook them in some water, salt them well and do not let them overcook. When done, let them drain, and make a sauce with some good fresh butter, a little vinegar, salt and nutmeg and an egg yolk to bind the sauce; take care that it doesn’t curdle. Serve the asparagus well garnished with whatever you like.

Now this is my idea of a great recipe – some water, a little vinegar – I love all this vaguery; something about too much precision in recipes drives me mad. However, as a strong believer in small is beautiful, I’ll stick with the smallest spears I can find; and rather than scrape the ends, just snap off the tough butt end of the stem – you’ll feel the right spot.

Now the cooking in water part is admittedly tricky. Most people just lay the spears in a skillet of some sort because most pot bottoms are too narrow to accommodate them. But this cooks the harder ends as long as the more delicate tips, sometimes rendering them to mush if you aren’t careful.

One of the best all-round investments I’ve ever made was a stainless steel asparagus pot from Woodward’s closing out sale in Vancouver. Such a deal at $9.99. It has a cool little basket inside that holds the spears upright and you can use just enough water to cook the harder butt ends. It also makes a great wine cooler.

One final tip, call it a tip tip. Try eating asparagus with your fingers, sliding the naked spears along a stick of sweet (unsalted) butter. Spring will never taste the same again.

Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning freelance writer who is looking for a headboard for the asparagus bed in her garden.