There's no purer taste of spring than a tender yet slightly crisp spear of asparagus. As one of the first fresh vegetables of the season, asparagus means the best eating time of the year has arrived. When you see it popping up on local restaurant special boards, you can be sure that all the other wonderful seasonal treats — soft-shell crabs, shad roe, strawberries, and radishes — can't be far behind.
One of the reasons asparagus is such a rare treat is that its local growing season is quite short, just six weeks or so. "We're picking a little earlier this year than normal," local farmer Pete Ambrose says, crediting the unusually mild winter. Ambrose and his son Sam grow some of the best local spears at Ambrose Family Farms out on Johns Island, and he expects their last field to be producing through the end of April.
The green variety that the Ambroses grow is the most common, though there are also purple and white variations, too. The purple is a separate variety from the green, while the white is actually just green asparagus grown in restrictive light so that the green color doesn't develop. Typically, farmers mound it in dirt or cover it with a dark cloth so that it grows without the spears being exposed to light. "It's very labor intensive," Pete says, and he doesn't think it's worth the trouble. "It has the novelty of being white, but it doesn't really taste any different."
Perhaps the best place to get the Ambroses' asparagus is at the family's Stono Market, where big bunches of the tall green spears stand high, peeking over the bins of organic beets, turnips, and rainbow-colored Swiss chard.
When you have really fresh asparagus just off the farm, the simplest recipes are usually the best, and the preparation is a snap — literally.
Usually there will be an inch or two of a woody, inedible piece that you need to remove before cooking. Just hold the bottom of a spear with one hand and, with the other, grab the stalk two inches or so up from the end and twist it down. It will snap off in the right place.
Grilled asparagus is a perfect addition to weekend cookouts: Just brush the spears with a little olive oil and grill them for about five minutes on one side and five minutes on the other. If you're cooking inside, drizzle the spears with olive oil, toss them with garlic, salt, and pepper, and put them in a single layer in a roasting pan. Pop them in a 400-degree oven and roast them for seven to 10 minutes until they're golden brown. Lemon juice, balsamic vinegar, or shaved parmesan are great toppings to add at serving time.
My favorite way to fix asparagus is a simple sauté. Heat a large skillet on medium-high, melt a couple of tablespoons of butter, and toss in your trimmed asparagus spears and a clove or two of chopped garlic. Cover and cook, giving it an occasional stir, until the asparagus is tender (about five to 10 minutes, depending on the size of the spears).
Need inspiration? You can sample this sort of simple preparation right at the source in the Stono Market's Tomato Shed Café, where Pete Ambrose's asparagus is among the fresh local vegetables featured on the menu (look for the side items with stars next to them). The full-length spears are sautéed and sprinkled with lots of coarse salt and big grains of black pepper. They're cooked flawlessly, with just the right slightly crisp texture and plenty of intense, juicy flavor. Try them alongside the café's wonderful golden-brown crab cakes for a fine springtime lunch.
You can find asparagus from Ambrose Family Farms at plenty of restaurants downtown, too. One of its biggest fans is Craig Deihl, the executive chef at Cypress. With its large dining room and steak-centric format, Cypress uses a lot of asparagus year round, and it's part of two mainstays on Deihl's classic menu. In salmon wellington, asparagus spears serve as a foundation for the slices of smoked salmon wrapped in pastry and mushroom duxelles, and it also comes alongside the big filet of beef with fingerlings and Madeira sauce.
Deihl and his crew regularly go through 120 pounds of asparagus a week, but even so, that brief six-week window in the spring when the local stuff is available is a special time. "We switch over completely to the local stuff as soon as it's available," Deihl says. "It has so much more flavor to it, and you really get that crispness, too."
The fresh asparagus that local farmers like the Ambroses deliver is handsnapped, Deihl says, and it's a good bit larger than what gets shipped in from California and other year-around agricultural centers. The Cypress crew uses the top five inches of the local spears for the regular salmon and steak entrées, and they use the wider, more fibrous bottoms for soups.
In mid-March, Deihl was serving a splendid asparagus soup that really concentrated the vegetable's intense spring flavors. It starts with the bottom halves of the asparagus spears, which are puréed with butter to create a pale green broth. Right before serving, Deihl adds two big chunks of cold smoked salmon belly that have mascarpone folded into them to create a sort of rillette that's so tender it almost falls to smoky shreds right there in the hot broth. A drizzle of green garlic pistou over the top gives a splash of bright color, while pickled mustard seeds provide tangy little pops of flavor to finish off an all-around delightful bowl.
Deihl features asparagus specials like the soup only when the local variety is available. "It's our way of promoting it when it's in season," he says, noting that without the intense, fresh flavor, the soup just wouldn't work.
The pistou that finishes the soup is an appropriate seasonal accent, too, for it incorporates another local spring delicacy: green garlic. Deihl sweats the garlic bottoms long and slow, wilting the tops and puréeing them with olive into a vibrant green pistou. "Things that grow together go together," he says.
That's a good motto for Lowcountry spring eating. With just a few weeks left in the asparagus season, you'll have to move fast if you want to enjoy those fresh green spears. But no need to panic. If the current crop of asparagus is any indication, we have many more pleasurable combinations to look forward to as the growing season progresses.