Springtime Stalker

By fallspark, May 16th, 2011 | No Comments »

By Jim Mathis

According to the calendar and the television weathermen with freakishly perfect hair, the first day of spring (or the vernal equinox, as they pompously refer to it) happened on March 21. But as I recall, it was a cool and dreary day here in the Sioux Empire. It certainly wasn’t a day that screamed “spring!”

As far as I’m concerned, the first signs of spring have little to do with dates on the calendar or seeing the first robin of the New Year; to me the season begins when the first tender stalks of asparagus push through the newly thawed ground. I will be there in the early morning hours of the farmer’s markets looking for the first harvests. Then and only then will it truly feel like spring.

I know people who travel the back-roads and byways to carefully protected and undisclosed locations each spring to pick stalks that grow in ditches and around abandoned farm houses. Armed with a pair of garden shears, a plastic bag and a good sense of direction (or a maybe a GPS) they return each year to clip their prize. Although I really like asparagus, I have never been lucky enough to stumble upon one of these hidden patches of green goodness. And those who know the location of the growths aren’t sharing. Alas, I have to either count on their over-abundance or the farmer’s market.

Once you’ve located fresh, tender asparagus, it is versatile, easy to prepare and the humble stems can brighten up anything from salads to pastas to risottos. The most common preparation is steaming gently; the kitchen supply stores will even sell you a special tall, skinny pot made just to steam the spears while keeping the tops out of the water. But since spring also brings the beginning of grilling season, that’s where much of my mine will be cooked.

Asparagus, when steamed or lightly stir-fried, has a sweet and grassy taste. But roast or grill those same spears and the flavor becomes much richer and nuttier. Just be careful not to let them get too charred or they get a little bitter. My all time favorite is to wrap bundles of asparagus in thinly-sliced prosciutto. If they are pencil-thin, I’ll put 5 or 6 in a bundle, if thicker I’ll wrap 3 stalks at a time. Drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle on some fresh-cracked pepper (the prosciutto brings the salt) then grill for 3 to 4 minutes on each side. If you do it right, the bundles will stand up like proud little soldiers on the edge of the plate. And that, in my humble opinion, is just about as good as a vegetable ever gets.

We must enjoy the sweet stalks of spring while we can. The local asparagus will be around for just about six weeks before it fades from the stores and markets, only to be replaced by bundles from far away lands. But once spring gives way to summer we’ll turn our attention to the tomatoes and sweet corn that thrive in the summer heat, and while those are great, I’m beginning to miss spring already.

Do yourself a favor, eat something good today!

If you’re willing to share the secret location of your asparagus patch, Jim can usually be found at ADwërks, an ad agency he owns in Uptown Sioux Falls. (This article originally appeared in Etc for her magazine is used with permission.)

“… a flask of perfume.”

A flowering perennial, asparagus is a cousin of onions and garlic. And while the onions make you cry and the garlic will give you foul breath, asparagus has its own downfall; it makes your pee smell funny. Some claim it doesn’t affect them, but scientific studies have shown it happens to all of us (some just can’t smell it). My parents thought I was nuts when I mentioned it, but my sister backed me up. So much for the scent and sensitivity being genetic.

At first I thought it was just me. And I was more than a little concerned that the odor was sign that something was very wrong inside me. That is until the so-called Naked Chef Jamie Oliver mentioned it on TV. Aha! I thought; I am not alone. Not alone indeed. A little research uncovered an abundance of references in science and literature. French novelist Marcel Proust once wrote that the vegetable “transforms my chamber-pot into a flask of perfume.” I wouldn’t call it perfume, but Proust was known to be a bit flowery.

If you think, like I did, that perhaps your kidneys were failing and you might have only hours to live, it’s probably just a sign that you have a good sense of smell and you’re a good person who ate their vegetables. Or you’re a hypochondriac. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, is there?


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