Morning Glory Farm picked its first asparagus spears this week, signaling a start to the local growing season and a rush to enjoy this fleeting spring specialty. “It’s a hot commodity,” Morning Glory’s Simon Athearn said. “People will come to your store for asparagus; they won’t necessarily do that for arugula.” He says restaurants are clamoring for it as well.
Morning Glory is one of only two farms to grow and sell asparagus on the Island. Lisa Fisher of Stannard Farm will have some too, but not until the West Tisbury Farmers’ Market opens on June 11.
There is a distinct advantage in taste and texture when asparagus is purchased close to home. Asparagus, like corn, begins to lose its sugar content within hours of being picked. In corn, the sugar turns into starch. In asparagus, that sugar is converted into tough, woody fibers. Most supermarket asparagus travels from either California, Washington State, or Michigan. It could just as easily come from China, Peru, or Mexico: The top three asparagus-producing countries now outgrow the U.S. and blur the traditional season boundaries.
The Island asparagus season lasts a mere six or seven weeks. Then it’s over. Morning Glory experiences the intensity of this short season. They expect to pick an average of 100 to 150 pounds each day from their designated 1-acre asparagus field, with a midseason peak of between 300 to 400 pounds daily. During those heroic picking days, Mr. Athearn said they send six people out to harvest for two hours; then spend another two hours to wash, trim, and bunch the haul. Each day’s harvest generally sells out.
It is quite an undertaking to create a commercial asparagus field. Asparagus grows from underground crowns planted in trenches about 18 inches deep. For the farm, that means digging multiple 300-foot-long rows, planting crowns, and then maintaining the field for five years before it begins to yield a full crop.
“It’s a commitment,” Mr. Athearn said. “You want to build a good field when you are laying it out.” That means lots of compost, calcium, lime, rock phosphate, and other natural soil enhancers. Once established, the field may have 15 or more prime producing years.
Cooking asparagus is a lot easier than growing or picking it, luckily. Whether grilling the spears, roasting them in the oven, poaching, or stir-frying in a skillet, it only takes minutes to produce a quick and tasty side dish. Since grilling season coincides with asparagus season, this is a great method to start with. The natural flavor of asparagus is highlighted by that hint of smokiness. Slather the stalks with olive oil and add a few pinches of salt beforehand.
Roasting in a hot oven also brings out a deeper flavor. Since asparagus is 90 to 93 percent water, it holds up very well to the high heat of grilling and oven roasting. It’s also full of a long list of nutrients, including the antioxidant vitamins A, C, and E, B vitamins, folate, vitamin K, protein, calcium, iron, and more.
Spring Pasta Salad with Asparagus, Pea Shoots, and Feta
By Catherine Walthers
1 can (14 oz.) artichoke hearts
3 Tbsp. olive oil, divided
8 oz. pasta, such as penne or bowtie
1 pound asparagus, bottom 2 inches trimmed, cut into 1½-inch pieces
1 cup local pea shoots, rinsed and dried (or ¼ cup chopped fresh parsley)
1 cup feta cheese, diced
Grated zest of 1 lemon
3 Tbsp. lemon juice
2 Tbsp. olive oil
½ tsp. kosher salt
Preheat the oven to 400˚. Drain the artichokes, rinse well, and cut into quarters. Pat dry with paper towels and place on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Toss the artichokes with 1 tablespoon of the olive oil, and bake until edges begin to crisp, about 15 to 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and cook pasta until al dente, according to package directions. Drain the pasta and drizzle with 1 tablespoon of the oil. Shake strainer to distribute the oil and let steam escape. (Do this a few times, so all of the steam is released.) Set aside to cool.
Heat a heavy skillet or cast iron pan over medium-high heat. Add the remaining tablespoon olive oil and the asparagus pieces. Cook asparagus until just crisp-tender, about 4 minutes, stirring often. Sprinkle with a good pinch of salt. Place in a bowl to cool.
When the pasta and asparagus are cool, combine them with the pea shoots in a large serving dish. To make the dressing, in a small bowl, whisk together the lemon zest, lemon juice, and oil. Season with salt and pepper. Just before serving, add dressing to the pasta and gently stir in the artichokes. Top with feta.