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Blustery Spring Weekend

April 10th, 2007

Asparagus

Our Easter weekend was ice cold and blustery. Other then venturing out to Holmes County (home of The World’s Largest Amish Population as well as The World’s Largest Buffet) for canning supplies, we stayed home cringing in horror as last week’s perfect green grass and shivering little yellow dandelions were periodically buried under a light dusting of snow. We also mourned the Hyacinths outside our door that had been reduced to limp little stems lying defeated on the ground as their fragile purple flowers bowed down in defeat to winter’s last hoorah…

The ten years we lived in Florida had long ago erased our childhood memories of spring weather like this, and we entertained thoughts of getting in the car, heading south, and not stopping until it was warm enough for shorts and sun-dresses. It seemed like a plan, until I spoke to my mother who reported that the cold front had reached it’s chilly fingers down to Orlando as well. Feeling defeated, we bundled up in a blanket on the couch and watched foreign films for much of the weekend.

Wishing for spring and feeling just a bit cheated, I also retreated to the kitchen in hopes of re-creating just one more taste of it. I have since discovered that bright green perky little stalks of asparagus were made for days like this. Looking outside the kitchen window to see my world temporarily obscured by snow, I took my frustrations out on the asparagus by snapping off the woody ends. As I did so, I begrudgingly made peace with the seasons and all of their offerings.

In total, I trimmed and prepared 7 pounds of asparagus to be picked and canned. It’s spring-time perfection restored my spirits and found that chopping the asparagus to fit neatly in my jars, quickly became a meditative act. Not wanting to waste the tender ends that had to be trimmed away, I set them aside till I had a moment to ponder their fate.

While working, I thought of a very sweet friend of mine who teaches safe canning practices at her local county extension. She is an amazing woman who has really inspired, and empowered me to try my hand at canning and preserving food. With the patience of a saint, she singlehandedly talked me down from my fears of poisoning loved ones with pretty little jelly jars filled strawberry jam flavored Clostridium Botulinum. It was through her careful and meticulous instructions that I was slowly able to feel confident trying my hand at this art. With her guidance, last autumn, I successfully canned homemade Cinnamon Apple Sauce and immediately fell in love with the pleasure of preserving local produce at it’s peak. Every time I have opened a jar of that apple sauce, I have made a little wish for her and have since looked forward to trying my hand at some other canning projects as well. The recipe for Pickled Asparagus linked to below, was recommended by her and was very simple to make, even for a beginning canner like myself.

Standing in the kitchen inhaling the aromatic fragrances of dill and vinegar while counting the pings as the newly canned jar lids sealed, I remembered her telling me that the sound of those pings was one of her favorite pleasures. She is definitely on to something, because with each ping, my heart felt lighter. There certainly is something deeply satisfying when the positive results of your efforts are audible. Somehow, I don’t think I could ever tire from hearing that sound…

For the temporarily abandoned little asparagus bits, I chose to make a simple Creamy Asparagus Soup. My recipe is a very simple and quick compilation of many, yet it was a perfect reminder just how little needs to be done with those first fruits and vegetables of the season. For the rest of the weekend, we ate steaming hot bowls of it and felt even if for only a moment that we had cheated the weather and recaptured the sunnier days of spring…

According to the Michigan Asparagus Advisory Board, “Asparagus is one of the most nutritionally well-balanced vegetables in existence. It leads nearly all produce items in the wide array of nutrients it supplies in significant amounts for a healthy diet.” Asparagus is especially high in Folacin also known as Folic Acid or B9. This vitamin is necessary in aiding the body in cell growth/division, the formation of red blood cells, and preventing birth defects as well as anemia. It is also known to aid the body in digestion, converting carbohydrates into glucose (sugar), ultimately fueling our bodies with the energy it need to shake off the sluggishness of winter and embrace the longer days of spring. This makes perfect sense if you consider that it is often one of the first vegetables found in the markets after a long winter.

When buying Asparagus, there are three types that you may find in the market Green, White, and Purple. The most common one here in the states is Green Asparagus, it’s color coming from the photosynthesis of the sun. White Asparagus is more popular and more commonly found in Europe. It is cultivated by keeping it in the dark. Traditionally farmers would mound piles of dirt over the asparagus as they began to emerge from the ground. The lack of light and lack of photosynthesis kept these particular stalks from turning pink and then later green. Purple Asparagus, is said to have a 20% higher sugar content and is said to be delicious either raw or cooked. With all varieties, it is a common misconception that the thinner stalks are younger and more tender, when in all actuality it is the thicker stalks that have the best texture and flavor. Look for long healthy looking stalks that appear glossy, cut ends that are fresh, and have tight perfect heads . Like many fruits and vegetables, asparagus tends to lose it’s sweetness and quality the moment it is cut. When possible, buy locally and plan to use it fairly quickly. If you do need to store asparagus for a day or two, plan to keep it in the coldest part of your refrigerator, placing the stalks upright in a bowl filled with one-inch of cold water, and covered loosely with the produce bag it came in.

Asparagus is also considered to be fairly easy to grow and is a perennial spring crop, making it one of the few vegetables that will return season after season. Although I have yet to try my hand at growing it, my father in law has a tiny little patch in the corner of his garden. He did not plant enough to get a decent harvest, but we all love the way it looks when it has overgrown, as it casts a soft lacey fern-like backdrop for the rest of the garden. If you are interested in cultivating your own you may wish to explore the Michigan Asparagus Advisory Board’s information and instructions regarding planting cultivating and harvesting asparagus.

Last but not least, the recipes for Pickled Asparagus, a simple and deeply satisfying Cream of Asparagus Soup, as well as Safe Canning Guidelines for the Home Canner:

Pickled Asparagus
Courtesy of The National Center for Home Food Preservation

For six wide-mouth pint jars

10 Pounds of Asparagus (I found I only needed 8 Pounds)

6 Large Garlic Cloves

4 1/2 Cups Water

4 1/2 Cups White Distilled Vinegar (5 % acidity)

6 Small Hot Peppers (optional)

1/2 Cup Canning Salt

3 Teaspoons of Dill Seed

Procedure:

1. Wash, and rinse the canning jars; keep hot until ready to use. Prepare lids according to manufacturer’s directions.

2. Wash asparagus well, but gently under running water. Cut the stems from the bottom to leave spears with tips that fit into the canning jar with a little less that 1/2-inch headspace. Peel and wash garlic cloves. Place a garlic clove at the bottom of each jar, and tightly pack the asparagus into the jars with the blunt end down.

3. In an 8-inch quart dutch oven or sauce pot, combine water, vinegar, and hot peppers (optional), salt, and dill seed. Bring to a boil. Place one hot pepper (if used) in each jar over asparagus spears. Pour boiling hot pickling brine over spears, leaving 1/2-inch headspace.

4. Remove air bubbles and adjust headspace if needed. Wipe rims of jars with a dampened, clean paper towel; apply two-piece metal canning lids.

5. Process in boiling water canner according to the directions in Table 1. Let cool undisturbed, for 12 to 24 hours, and check for seals.

Allow Pickled Asparagus to sit in processed jars for 3 to 5 days before consumption for best favor development.

*Be sure to review the Safe Canning Guidelines for the Home Canner before trying this recipe.

A Simple and Deeply Satisfying Cream of Asparagus Soup

1 lb of Asparagus (May use the tender ends left over from making the Pickled Asparagus)

4 Cups of Chicken Stock or Porcini Mushroom Bullion Cubes made into a broth

1/2 Tsp. Salt

1/4 Tsp. Fresh Cracked Pepper

1/2 Cup of heavy cream or half and half

1 Tbs. Fresh cut chives to use as a garnish if desired Extra salt and pepper to taste

Wash asparagus gently removing any dirt or sand. Snap off woody ends and break the asparagus by hand into 1-inch pieces. Meanwhile, bring the stock or broth to a boil in a med sized pot on the stove. Add salt, pepper, and asparagus to the pot and turn the temperature down to medium-high heat. Cook the asparagus for 8 minutes or until tender. Carefully blend with a hand held immersion blender or allow the soup to cool slightly and process soup in small batches using a blender. (Be sure to vent often, so steam can escape.) Add cream and blend till combined. Add extra salt and pepper to taste and serve hot in deep bowls garnished with fresh chives.

Enjoy!

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