Mar 1, 2018
By Kelly Smith
March is one my favorite months at the farmers’ market. We still have lots of winter greens and citrus but we also start to see wonderful seasonal vegetables during March from green garlic to artichokes. My favorite of the Spring vegetables is Asparagus. It takes 3 years for an asparagus plant to become ready to grow the spears we enjoy on our plates. Young plants yield a harvest for 30 days and older plants can be harvested for the entire 90 day season. Most plants will yield asparagus spears for 7 to 9 years.
There are several types of asparagus, the green variety we all know, white asparagus which are the same as green but deprived sunlight and purple asparagus which is comes from a green plant as well but has a higher sugar content. When cooked purple asparagus offers up a notes of artichoke, barley and almonds in the flavor. You will mostly find green asparagus variety at the farmers’ market with a few farmers growing white and purple for variety.
As early as 200 B.C. the Romans had how-to-grow directions for asparagus. They enjoyed it in season and were the first to preserve it by freezing. In the 1st Century fast chariots and runners took asparagus from the Tiber River area to the snow line of the Alps where it was kept for six months until the Feast of Epicurus. Roman emperors maintained special asparagus fleets to gather and carry the choicest spears to the empire. The characteristics of asparagus were so well-known to the ancients that Emperor Caesar Augustus described “haste” to his underlings as being “quicker than you can cook asparagus”. This garden plant originated in the eastern Mediterranean countries and traces of wild varieties have been discovered in Africa.
Archaeologists believe that it was also cultivated in Egypt.
In ancient Greece, asparagus was considered to be a plant with sacred and aphrodisiac virtues and the Greeks were interested in its biological and pharmaceutical qualities. Hippocrates, the ancient Greek doctor, used asparagus to treat diarrhea and pains of the urethra. This plant, in fact, contains asparagines, an amino acid, which is known for it diuretic properties. The Romans, for their part, appreciated the plants gastronomic qualities. They ate it as an entrée or as a vegetable accompanying fish. Asparagus was largely forgotten during the Middle Ages but continued to be cultivated by the Arabs. Caesar’s legions returning from the Orient brought the asparagus back to Europe.
Starting in the 16th century, asparagus was served in the royal courts of Europe and in the 17th century it was cultivated in France for Louis XIV who was, apparently, very fond of it. At that time, according to the records, it was the size of a swan’s feather and was grown solely for the requirements of the nobility. Only in the 18th century did the asparagus make its appearance on the local marketplace and in numerous culinary works.
Today, green asparagus is found in America and China. The white variety is cultivated mainly in Europe. While researching asparagus I read that the best way to eat this easy to cook veggie is fresh from the garden. If you are not lucky enough to have a plant or two in your garden then the farmers’ market will be a great alternative. Farmers harvest the day before market and in some cases the day of the market. Now that’s fresh! Asparagus has already started showing up from our local farms in Sonoma County including French Garden and Triple T Organic Farm and Ranch.
1 sheet of puff pastry
1 tablespoon of all-purpose flour
1 large egg, lightly beaten in a bowl
1/4 cup grated Parmesan-Reggiano cheese
3/4 cup shredded Gruyere cheese
3/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 pound of washed, thick-stemmed asparagus, ends trimmed
Zest from 1/2 lemon
Preheat oven to 400o. Line a baking sheet with parchment or foil and set aside. Dust countertop it with the tablespoon of flour. Roll the puff pastry to a 1/8-inch thickness that’s a rectangle sized at 14-inches by 8-inches; trim the the rectangle so the edges are straight. No need to be precise. Using a sharp knife, lightly score the puff pastry dough 1-inch from the edges, making a rectangle shape within the rectangle. Take a fork and score the inside of smallest rectangle, ten or fifteen times. Transfer the sheet of puff pastry to the lined baking sheet. Brush the puff pastry with the lightly beaten egg and place the baking sheet in the freezer to chill for 5 minutes. In a medium bowl, mix together the Parmesan, Gruyere and red pepper flakes. Spread half of the cheese mixture on the inside square. Arrange the asparagus spears side-by-side and top with the remaining cheese mixture. Sprinkle with a bit of black pepper and transfer to the oven and bake for 15 to 20 minutes, until the edges are golden brown. Zest the 1/2 lemon over the tart; slice it up and serve.
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