“The asparagus is now growing,” reads the Facebook post for Produce Acres farm of Cold Spring, Minn., from a few weeks ago.
Is there a more glorious note for the season? The slim green stalks are waiting for those of us hungry for something fresh and green and local in farmers markets around the state.
Russ Willenbring is among those who satisfies our cravings for this vegetable. He and his family have been growing asparagus at Produce Acres since 1983, where it takes up 5 of the 75 acres on their certified organic farm. He is as ready for the season of abundance as we are.
Produce Acres’ asparagus is sold locally at the Minneapolis Farmers Market on Lyndale Avenue N. on Saturdays and Sundays, generally from Mother’s Day through the end of June (www.produceacres.com).
One would think that, for cooks, the world of asparagus would be one of extremes (you like asparagus or you don’t). In fact, there is an underlying debate among those who prepare the stalks that offers little opportunity for compromise.
Thick or thin?
We are referring to the size of the stalks, an issue discussed as vigorously as that of the other seasonal controversy, over how to butter sweet corn (on the cob or on the plate?).
As one might expect, Willenbring is not taking sides, given that he grows both sizes intentionally. He patiently explains that bigger asparagus doesn’t reflect older stock (asparagus definitely doesn’t follow the growth patterns of zucchini). Size depends on the variety grown, and it does not serve as an indicator of tenderness.
Willenbring finds the heavy-duty stalks to be a little sweeter and milder than the scrawnier ones.
Whichever version you choose, do not — and this bears repeating — do not overcook them.
“When it’s overcooked, it doesn’t taste good at all,” he said about the resulting limp mounds no one would want to eat.
Willenberg is partial to the stalks raw. When he’s walking down the rows picking asparagus, he and the other harvesters munch on the stalks too small to sell.
“We eat a lot of it during the season,” he said.
For storing asparagus, he recommends keeping the stalks in moist paper towels inside a paper bag that is placed in the refrigerator crisper, where he assures us that they should last up to two weeks. “That’s Minnesota fresh,” he said.
To freeze asparagus, he advises washing the stalks before cutting them to the size preferred for cooking, then tossing them in a freezer bag to store in the cold.
The very short local season means a cook has to be focused and perhaps excessive in reaching for the vegetable before it disappears and is replaced by stalks from who knows where. If you prepare dinner like I do, that means asparagus daily until someone at the table mumbles, “Enough.” But that’s many meals away.
In the meantime, there are as many ways to prepare asparagus as there are dinners to make. In the beginning, as with any seasonal fruit or vegetable, I start out with the basics: in this case steamed, poached, grilled and roasted stalks with only a dab of butter, or oil, salt and pepper. When that becomes a bit familiar, I put more effort into the embellishments, with sauces and cheese sprinkles, tossed in pasta or mixed in with eggs.
Willenbring’s favorite? Steamed with salt, pepper and cheese atop.
Then again, there’s the pickled variety. “It makes the perfect stir stick for a bloody mary,” he said with a laugh.
Follow Lee Svitak Dean on Twitter: @StribTaste.