It starts with the tip

Asparagus season is fleeting—and early birds wear the crowns



Julie Cross directs the sampling, cooking and wine-tasting classes at the Davis Food Co-op.

Asparagus is one of those things. Eleven months out of the year, it’s just dull, a “luxury” ingredient that doesn’t really bring much to the party. But for 10 or 12 weeks in spring, asparagus is really all that it’s cracked up to be.

We hit this window of opportunity running last week, when Full Belly Farms won the race—which existed only in my head, alas—to get the first lovely local asparagus to the shelves of the Davis Food Co-op.

Andrew Brait of Fully Belly was kind enough to take a few moments away from the farm to talk asparagus.

Full Belly has been growing asparagus for 16 years. While much of the farm is heavy clay soil, a couple of spots are composed of silty loam, perfect for asparagus. Brait says that this already-rich flood plain soil has been generously enriched over the years, giving Full Belly a particularly lush—and very flavorful—crop. Full Belly supplies asparagus to the Davis and Sacramento Food Co-ops, as well as to The Waterboy restaurant in Midtown. Its CSA subscribers can expect asparagus in their boxes roughly every other week.

The local asparagus season is short. Mid-May, the combination of warm weather and the length of days mean that the asparagus will unfurl into fronds quickly—almost as the spears emerge, according to Brait. Full Belly expects its season to end around May 12 each year.

This early in the spring, asparagus is tender, delicately flavored and strangely addictive. It’s good steamed, boiled, roasted, battered and deep-fried, tossed into stir frys and pasta, and, with a bit of care, even raw. It pairs beautifully with butter, mayonnaise, soft cheese, hard cheese, cured meats, starches of all varieties. In short, everything but wine.

Wine gets a bit tricky, because compounds in the asparagus can make wine taste, briefly but crucially, too sweet.

Claire Snyder, wine buyer at the Davis Food Co-op, suggests Crossings New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc to pair with pan roasted asparagus with lime (see recipe, below).

The tenderness of asparagus isn’t based on size, but on age and the number of cuttings. The first stalks cut are always super tender.

Later in the year, when the asparagus crown has been cut several times, even pencil thin stalks will be a bit tough. If you get a batch that seems tougher than you like, peeling the lower parts of the stalks will help. Choose stalks that have tightly furled tips, and look for asparagus that is fairly crisp. Wash asparagus well, since the tips hold on to grit. If you grasp a spear of asparagus in both hands and bend it, it will naturally snap at the point where the stem is too woody to eat.

Here’s that recipe, which you should try sooner than later: Pan Roasted Asparagus with Lime (for two). The ingredients: 16 asparagus spears, one small lime, 2 tsp. olive oil, half tsp. dried thyme, and parmesan, if desired.

First, wash the asparagus well. Snap off the tough ends at their natural breaking point and discard. Cut each spear in half and separate the stem ends from the tip ends. Drop stem ends in boiling water and cook for one minute. Add tip ends and cook an additional minute. Then drain.

Next, squeeze the lime. Add one tsp. oil and thyme. Add asparagus and stir to coat. Marinate at least 15 minutes—and up to 24 hours.

Finally, heat a heavy skillet—non-stick is not recommended. Add remaining teaspoon of oil and heat until shimmering. Add asparagus and any unabsorbed marinade. Cook over medium high heat, stirring frequently, until asparagus is tender and parts are a deep brown. Serve as is, or top with shavings of good parmesan.