Here’s what I know about asparagus: it’s delicious, usually green, and, most importantly for us, my friend Scott Britton grows it in North Falmouth. But his doesn’t look anything like the tidy bundles you find in the supermarket. And it sure doesn’t taste like supermarket asparagus—which is exactly what led Scott and his wife Liz to growing their own. It all started when some friends gave them some wild asparagus….
... and we had those and we said that’s it… we have to grow asparagus. It’s like tomatoes - it’s a whole different thing, it’s not like asparagus you get at the store. So we got some little seedlings in the ground and then you wait 2-3 years. The first 2 years you don’t take any. They come up, but you’re trying to let them spread and establish themselves, so you basically leave them. And then the third year you can start taking some, but you leave most of them up and just take a smattering, and we took very few because I wanted to make sure it got established well.
Ten years later and all that holding back and some fastidious weeding and tender loving care has paid off. In the past Scott had gotten 20, 22, 24 spears on a good day and some days just a dozen or 16 but this year they’ve gotten over 30 and even 49 one day which has shattered all previous records…. A feast !
Things first start to happen the last week in April. They grow very slowly, just one or two or three spears at a time – it’s exciting the first day when there’s enough to cook because it takes 3 or 4 days before there’s a worthwhile amount – after that, it’s 20 a day – Scott is knee deep in them through the 3rd week of June.
Harvesting asparagus is very satisfying – and you can see it practically growing right before your eyes. To me, when you look at a single stalk bursting through pretty solid dirt it looks prehistoric– in the same way oysters do – it feels like a power or a force in nature and let’s face it, they look pretty weird.
Scott showed me one: See this wasn’t tall enough yesterday – it had to have grown 4, 5 or 6 inches and: …[cutting sound] timber..there it goes. The asparagus push up through really hard soil and when they come up they’re white. To maintain white asparagus it’s kept covered in dirt, piling it up around the spear every day so that the chlorophyll won't turn it green – but that’s a lot of extra work.
Scott shows me that when asparagus first shoot out of the ground they come out the thickness they’re going to be, so if they come out thin they stay thin and will never get thick while others come out almost an inch wide - huge fat ones - "which you really like when you grow them," Scott says “they like to sell you on the pencil thin ones”, but he prefers the thick ones – he cuts them long to not give up any valuable asparagus meat and then he peels them with a vegetable peeler. The bottom third or half way up since that is where they get a little fibrous, but he’d rather peel a little at the bottom and get the whole spear nice and tender.
Scott is a superior and detailed cook – and he cooks with intention. The closer he can get to the source or the origin of his ingredients the better - from peas to pigs to clams and oysters… He cherishes every last drop or fiber. So… don’t think for a second that he would ever waste even those tiny peelings or wee tough bits.
If it’s too big and he’s going to cut some off because he let it grow too long and they’re too tall, then he saves those and makes a soup or a sauce with it. He boils the little end bits and put them in the Cuisinart and strains them out – that would do for making Double Asparagus Sauce or Asparagus and Parmagian soup – or a stock for whatever else you wanted to put it in.
Double Asparagus Sauce:
Take about a cup of the peeled cut off bottoms of some spears, and/or some of the more unsightly spears. (Or just use a cup's worth of asparagus cut up.) Put in a pot with a shallot or two and a little bit of salted water and simmer for seven minutes. Drain and put into a food processor with a handful of cilantro (or another herb like tarragon or parsley). Blend with the juice of half a lemon and nice olive oil, maybe three tablespoons, until you have reached the consistency you want. Adjust seasoning. Steam fresh asparagus spears for six minutes. I like to peel the bottom half with a vegetable peeler first because I hate to break the spears and throw good asparagus away. Serve immediately with the sauce.
Asparagus Parmigiano Soup:
Make asparagus stock first. Boil asparagus peelings, fibrous ends, funky pieces of asparagus, chopped green tops of the leeks in enough chicken stock to barely cover. Boil until quite soft, maybe twelve minutes. Blend in a processor and then strain through a fine filter, pressing hard to extract as much liquid as possible. Discard the pulp and set the liquid stock aside. Take the tender asparagus spears you want to use for the base of the soup and cut into smallish pieces. Chop a slightly smaller amount of the whites of the leeks. Saute together with plenty of butter, as much as you're willing to add. It takes longer than steaming, maybe ten or twelve minutes. When they start to soften add a couple of cloves of chopped garlic. Season with salt and white pepper. When soft, put in a processor and add a little of the stock. Process and continue to add stock until you have reached the desired thickness. Stir in a good amount of freshly grated Parmigiano cheese, maybe as much as a quarter cup per bowl. Its nice to put a few freshly steamed spears of asparagus on top of it in the bowl. And I go for a drizzle if olive oil as well.
And here's the Turtle story !
This piece first aired in June, 2017.