Food

Flash in the Pan

Stalking wild asparagus

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In the title chapter to Stalking the Wild Asparagus, Euell Gibbons describes a fishing trip along the banks of the Rio Grande when he was 12 years old. On his way to the fishing hole, he was distracted.

"Happening to look down, I spied a clump of asparagus growing on the ditch bank, with half a dozen fat, little spears that were just the right size to be at their best," he writes.

The thrill of spotting edibles in the wild is well known to foragers who make a practice of, as Gibbons puts it, "reaping where they didn't sow." To me, the sight of wild asparagus shoots poking out of the ground is akin to the spectacle of morel mushrooms on the forest floor. They remain all but invisible until you spot your first. Then, once you get your eyes adjusted to the shape—in both cases a stalk capped with a funky crown—they start coming into focus throughout the landscape.

"I took out my pocketknife, cut the tender tips, and dropped them into the pail in which I had planned on bringing home any fish I might catch," Gibbons recounts. "Even while I was cutting this cluster, I saw another with several more perfect little sprouts. Alerted, I kept my eyes open and found another clump, and then another."

As Gibbons explains, getting your asparagus goggles dialed in involves more than tuning into the prize itself. Wild asparagus is easier to find if you can spot the remains of last year's full-grown plants, which died over the winter. It is at the bases of these dried, fern-like growths that the tender shoots emerge.

Both wild and domestic asparagus are the same species, asparagus officinalis, and harvesting cultivated asparagus is, like stalking wild asparagus, a magical experience. Even in a farm field, cultivated asparagus stalks remain all but invisible until the first one is spotted. Then more appear.

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I once joined a spring asparagus harvest at the farm of my friend Jane Kile, who has since passed away. All of the previous year's mature plants had been removed from the asparagus patch in Dixon, leaving a brown field that appeared totally barren. But as I approached, I realized it was full of fast-growing stubble.

"It will grow 6 inches in a day if it's warm enough," Kile told me on that chilly April day. "But today it probably only grew like a 10th of an inch."

Although it's more closely related to grass, planting an asparagus patch requires the long-term commitment of someone who plants an orchard of fruit trees. A good patch will produce for 20 years or more, but the asparagus grower must wait years before harvesting any shoots, giving time for the roots to establish themselves.

With asparagus in season, it's a perfect time to highlight Kile's recipe for asparagus soup. It will help you make it through the spring. And if you freeze enough it will take you through summer, too.

Peel a head of garlic and oven-roast the cloves at 350 degrees until completely soft. Meanwhile, trim 1.5 pounds of fresh asparagus by cutting off the woody sections at the thick end of the shoot. Break off the tips, and cut the remaining stalks into 1-inch pieces. Heat 4 tablespoons of butter in a pan, and sauté two chopped leeks until tender. Add the asparagus stalks, roasted garlic and enough chicken stock to cover them. Cook until the stalks are tender. In another pan, boil the tips for five minutes.

Allow the asparagus and garlic to cool, and puree it. Return the pureed mixture to the pan, add 3 more cups of stock, and bring to a simmer. Remove from heat, and season with salt and pepper. Add the boiled tips, and stir in 3 tablespoons of lemon juice. If you like your soup a bit feisty, add a clove or two of raw garlic, minced.

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