If ever there were an edible plant that carried with it the significant weight of the changing of the seasonal guard, asparagus would be it. A perennial that bears spears after its third year, asparagus is a hearty plant, but a challenging one, too. Prolific, weed-prone, and in need of constant tending, asparagus is the gift that keeps on giving.
Because they’re a perennial, asparagus do not get planted the way ordinary vegetables do. And, in fact, they are more susceptible to weeds, and even some bugs. “We buy it in rootstock,” Lucy Senesac of Peconic’s Sang Lee Farms said. “So you buy these roots that look like spaghetti, basically, and they have, like, a crown. Kind of like a mop head. And they have a crown that they’re attached to. And you dig a trench in the ground, like a foot or two deep.” Roots are then covered, similar to potatoes, until the ground is eventually rendered flat. When the asparagus pushes up through the soil, farmers mound more dirt on top.
Asparagus is particularly prone to weeds, in part because it grows back every season. That means that you can’t dig it up completely and till the ground, killing everything that is underneath. When the plant comes back, so too do some of the weeds. “The weed control on asparagus is really insane,” Senesac said. “Because it’s a perennial, you’re not wiping the slate clean every year, or plowing it, or rototilling it.”
In order to curb weed regrowth at Sang Lee, which is a certified organic farm, and, therefore, does not use any chemical treatment, grass planting is used. “We plant grass between the rows so that we don’t have to constantly keep up with the weeds,” Senesac said. “We’ve tried using landscape fabric between them, but it causes the ground to get too warm, so, instead, we plant clover and grass.” Asparagus, which Senesac concedes is a “hard crop to grow,” is also subject to pests like the spotted asparagus beetle.
When asparagus first pushes, it produces skinny, feeble spears. After three seasons, though, the spears become longer, fatter, and more fibrous. “They keep growing and they look thicker every year, so by year three, you see spears that look like a reasonable size,” Senesac said. “You’re going to have a plant that looks more durable and can withstand a plant cutting its roots off.” Cut a spear from a mature plant and a new spear will grow up from the same spot of rootstock, in its stead.
Asparagus at harvest is far longer than the average consumer thinks. In stores, we see asparagus that runs about a foot long — maybe an inch or two less. But fresh field asparagus is far longer than that. “You want to harvest the spears when they’re 15 inches to 18 inches from the ground level, because you use this little metal v-shaped tool, but you want to cut them longer.” In warm weather, asparagus needs to be harvested at least once a day, before they flower out, since the push to flower will make the vegetable bitter. North Fork asparagus starts during the third week of April and continues through the end of May (South Fork asparagus has a slightly later season), but most farmers don’t continue past that date, since the vegetable has an overwhelming arc. To keep up with it comes at the expense of other crops. Plants last 10 to 20 years.
The longer the asparagus, the more leeway the consumer has with them, since the bottom part of the vegetable typically needs to be peeled or snapped off before it can be eaten. Fresh asparagus can actually be eaten raw, although people buying asparagus from the grocery store, where it has traveled for days — if not weeks — have likely never eaten true same-day asparagus. Chef Carolyn Stec of East Hampton’s Mill House Inn stressed the importance of buying the freshest asparagus. “Make sure that it’s green. And that your ends are not dried out,” she said. “When you go to the grocery store, it’s got that dried-out bottom. Avoid that, because it means that it’s off the vine and sitting for a long time.”
For Stec, and many chefs, really, asparagus is a breath of fresh air. “The most exciting things about asparagus is that it’s like that first vegetable,” she said. “We can get fresh produce now. It’s the first delivery from the farms, really, other than greens. The first vegetable that we get. Asparagus is the symbol of spring.” At the Mill House Inn, where breakfast is included in the guest experience, Stec serves an asparagus frittata in season, using Mecox Bay Dairy cheese and local herbs. She also cooks a white-on-green omelet: goat cheese from the North Fork, local asparagus, spinach, and whatever other local greens she can find.
For chef Matty Boudreau of the North Fork’s Green Hill Kitchen, asparagus is a signifier for localism. “It’s the thing that I identify most in my mind with local goods.” Despite the fact that he runs a barbecue restaurant, asparagus plays a prominent role in Boudreau’s kitchen.
An upcoming menu item will feature a steak, of sorts: thick spears of asparagus, lightly steamed and then seared together on the plancha, and served together as a charred steak. “It’s something I don’t ever put on my menu unless it’s local,” he said. “We get really lucky that we get such good perspective on it, that we get farmers that grow nothing but asparagus. Local asparagus, especially on Long Island, is one of our key crops.”
To prep asparagus, Stec suggests peeling off the small triangular pieces at the bottom and then popping off the rougher bottoms where they naturally bend. But don’t throw those pieces away! “We usually use the ends to make stock or soup,” Stec said. The challenge, with asparagus, is, from a farming perspective, ever-present, and real. But, as the chefs (and diners) of Long Island can tell you, the reward is in that first burst of green after a very long, hard winter.
The Mill House Inn’s Asparagus Frittata
An excellent way to showcase the season’s best asparagus. Here’s how to do it.
3 eggs (Chef Stec recommends using Quail Hill Farms’)
1 ounce heavy cream
1 teaspoon fresh herbs, like parsley and chives.
1 tablespoon butter
1/4 cup diced onion
2 tablespoons leeks or spring onion
1/2 teaspoon minced garlic
1 cup grilled spring asparagus, cut into 1-inch pieces
1/4 cup Mecox Bay Dairy Sigit Cheese, shredded
Salt and pepper, to taste
Prepare your asparagus on the grill. Heat your oven to 425 degrees. In a 6-inch sauté pan (we use Lodge carbon steel), sauté garlic, leeks, and onions over a medium-high heat. In a separate bowl, whisk together eggs, heavy cream, and herbs, and season with salt and pepper. The more air in the eggs, the fluffier your frittata will be.
Fold in the asparagus and cheese. Pour egg mixture into the onion mixture in the sauté pan.
Place sauté pan in oven for 15-20 minutes until golden-brown. Using a rubber spatula, loosen the frittata from the pan. Serve with a side of fresh spring greens.
Other variations: Add prosciutto or bacon while sautéing the onion for a little something extra.
Sang Lee’s Asparagus Radish Salad
Lucy Senesac of Sang Lee Farms prefers her fresh asparagus raw. If you have the opportunity to eat asparagus fresh from the fields, this salad is the perfect display of peak seasonality.
1 bunch of medium-to-thin-sized asparagus
1 bunch of small French breakfast radishes
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
1 teaspoon rice vinegar
Jest of 1 lemon
Juice of half a lemon
Pepper to taste
Thoroughly wash all vegetables. Cut the bottoms off the asparagus and remove the greens from the radishes. Thinly dice the scallions and make sure not to waste the white or green parts.
Thinly julienne the asparagus, two at a time. Slice the radishes very thin. Combine the vegetables in a medium-sized bowl. Zest the lemon into the bowl. Squeeze the juice of the lemon into the salad. Add oil, vinegar, and pepper to taste. Toss until combined. Serve cold.