Alice Waters is a name synonymous with the Slow Food Movement and fresh, local, and sustainable produce. Recently, Waters prepared a meal at Monticello, the Estate of Thomas Jefferson for two hundred and fifty Monticello donors and supporters. The menu focused on local ingredients from Virginia, most of which were grown in Jefferson’s time and are still harvested today from his garden. One of the star ingredients, always a staple crop at Monticello and a springtime star right here in New York City, was asparagus.
Asparagus, a flowering perennial native to Europe, Northern Africa, and Western Asia, is a member of the lily family, which also includes onions, leeks, and garlic. It is celebrated in the Northeast as a herald of the return of the local growing season in spring. But this springtime clamor for asparagus is no recent, or local, trend. Evidence abounds that humans have cherished the tender spear for over twenty thousand years. It was first cultivated 2,500 years ago in Greece. The word asparagus is derived from the Greek word aspharagos, which is in turn derived from the Persian asparag, for ‘stalk’ or ‘shoot.’ The Romans loved it too – Augustus, the first Roman emperor, anointed a flotilla of ships ‘The Asparagus Fleet,’ and reserved it exclusively for the gathering and transportation of the precious spear throughout the empire. As the Roman Empire spread across the globe, so did asparagus.
There are over three hundred species of asparagus. The most common varieties – the kind typically found in grocery stores and farmers markets today – are green, purple and white. While green asparagus is most common, the purple varieties have higher sugar content, are sweeter in flavor and often served raw. When cooked, their purple color fades. The coveted white asparagus lacks green chlorophyll because it’s grown covered with soil – as the it grows dirt is continuously mounded around the stalk, depriving it of light. White asparagus has a more delicate, less herbaceous flavor than its green and purple cousins. It also has a more fibrous stalk, which must be peeled. When exposed to light, it turns yellow or red.
I sat down with Ray Bradley of Bradley Farms in Ulster, New York, to talk about the celebrated spring stalk. Ray’s fresh produce has been a staple at the Grand Army Plaza Greenmarket since 1990. Before dedicating his life to farming, Ray was a chef. A serious one. He got his start in the restaurant business “peeling carrots,” but worked his way up the line in the kitchens of places like Le Cirque, The Westbury Hotel’s Polo, and Montrachet. In those days, Ray says he was “in over his head,” cooking next Thomas Keller, Daniel Boulud, and his childhood friend David Bouley – all of whom were then still-rising stars. Eventually Ray says, he “left the restaurant business, because unlike farming, it never ends.”
In 1990, Ray, starting with a small plot of rented land, began farming vegetables. A decade later, he took the plunge, buying twenty-three acres near New Paltz to start his own farm. Ray takes pride in the fact that he was able to make his dream of owning a working farm a reality – in addition to growing vegetables, flowers and herbs, he now raises chickens, pigs and bees, and hosts frequent dinners with celebrated chefs at the farm.
Ray explained that the season for harvesting asparagus begins in early spring and generally extends into June. He grows the Jersey Giant, a green varietal with purple accents at the tips. The spears sprout from a ‘crown’ that’s planted a foot deep in sandy, nitrogen-rich soil. Asparagus grows best when it’s hot – under ideal conditions, Ray’s Jersey Giant spears can grow up to ten inches in a twenty-four hour period. In early spring, there are typically four to five days between harvests, but as the nights and days grow warmer, a productive field can be harvested every twenty-four hours. The spear, “comes up from the ground six to eight inches, and a good plant can last just about forever if you take care of it. To me, the bigger the stalk, the better it is.”
Asparagus tends to be pricey, said Ray, because harvesting them is labor-intensive – the spears grow at different rates and must be harvested stalk-by-stalk, by hand. In order to ensure development of a strong roots system and mature plants that will produce for many seasons, asparagus can’t be harvested for three years after planting the crowns. Ray fertilizes his asparagus fields at least two times a year and says the fields can produce for fifteen years or more, but that the prime age for a field is six to eight years. After all the spears are harvested, the plant flowers and produces red berries. When dropped, the nutrients in the berries enrich the soil, ensuring a healthy crop the following year.
If the season for asparagus in the northeastern United States is limited to May and June, why do you find it on menus and on supermarket shelves year-round? Because it’s shipped here from the other side of the planet, of course. According to the USDA, the top growers of asparagus are China, Peru, and Mexico. China exports asparagus to more than 50 countries – the U.S is a lead importer of China’s canned asparagus. Inside the U.S., California typically produces 80% of the asparagus crop, but in recent years competition from Peru and Mexico has intensified. Most grocery stores in the U.S. sell imported asparagus year-round, almost all of which is produced by large-scale agribusiness ventures. Geopolitics and environmental impacts aside, any farmer or chef will tell you that the fresh, local variety tastes best.
So enjoy asparagus when we’re meant to – when it’s in season. The quality of flavor and texture of freshly-harvested asparagus is vastly superior to those of spears that have spent weeks in transit. And by eating the good stuff we support local farmers, who tend to need it a lot more, and from whom we all derive far more direct culinary benefit, than enormous, faceless corporations playing at their intensive trans-global asparagus production game.
Ray’s tip for picking the best bunch? Look for firm stalks with tightly-closed tips. He also says asparagus is best when kept clean and cold, covered with damp paper towels and used within 2-3 days. Asparagus will keep for 6-8 months in the freezer, but to best preserve flavor and texture, the spears must first be blanched for 1-2 minutes, then cooled completely in an ice bath, drained, dried and packed in airtight freezer bags.
So what’s farmer/chef Ray’s favorite way to prepare asparagus? Simply. He snaps off the woody base of the stalks, washes them, and sautés them briefly in a pan with butter, salt, and pepper.