Food writer Bethany Jean Clement shares the meaning of Washington-grown asparagus to her and her family — and why you should eat it now, before the season’s done.
Can a family have a vegetable, the way a state has a bird? Why not? My family’s is, incontrovertibly, asparagus.
My father grew up east of the mountains, past Yakima, in Sunnyside. As a kid, he worked springtimes in the early morning fields, cutting asparagus before school. He said, if memory serves, that he made the princely sum of 35 cents an hour. At the end of the season — June, usually — the man who owned the fields would take all the part-time child laborers to town for root-beer floats, a treat of a magnitude that never diminished. “They were so good,” my dad would say decades later, momentarily far away.
When I was growing up, we went over to Sunnyside often, to help my grandmother with the Angus cattle she raised: feeding, branding, mending fence. Spring was the time when we corralled the herd, loaded them into the truck, and took them out to graze on the sage rangeland; it was also the time of an outburst of lilacs and the glory of asparagus season.
For some years, asparagus grew in the neighbor’s field, across the dusty road from grandma’s house. It was my job before dinner to “go cut some grass” — to take the long, forked-tongued asparagus knife and walk out into the field in the evening breeze, the land seemingly breathing, the light tending toward golden. My grandmother’s collie would stand guard, gazing nobly into the distance.
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It is difficult to equal asparagus that is mere minutes and yards from dirt to plate, just boiled briefly in an old farm pan, maybe a little butter melting on top. But Washington asparagus from the farmers market or the grocery store is still a miracle of spring, and this year, there’s a bumper crop, with a couple-few more weeks of eating left. My dad eventually started grilling asparagus — just salt and pepper and a little bit of olive oil, turned once or twice on a hot grill until just roasty and a little floppy — but we all felt, quite strongly, that any other preparation besides grandma’s and that one would be gilding the spear.
Then, a few years ago, I accidentally hoarded a lot — a lot — of asparagus butt ends, adding them serially to a bag in the freezer. (Also, if you need any of those blue or purple rubber bands that asparagus is bundled with, let me know.) Eventually, I thought I should try making asparagus soup. This very natural conclusion was met at the extended-family table with undisguised suspicion, but even my dad had to admit that it was good. (It also essentially conforms to his first rule of cooking: Every good recipe starts with sautéing an onion.) The recipe here is adjusted with chicken or vegetable stock for those who do not have an obsessive amount of asparagus butts on hand, and it achieves its own kind of richness.
My grandmother lived to a vigorously advanced age; she didn’t even give up the last of the cattle until she was 78. My father departed this earth prematurely, by all measures, around this time a year ago. I am not sure he had any asparagus last year at all; he, who had always eaten with an inspirationally majestic appetite, was whittled away at the end, his favorite foods suddenly tasting unbearable, one by one. Terminal cancer is nothing but betrayal.
Love your loved ones — the people, the vegetables — as much as you can. You never know if this is the last of them for you. Eat all the asparagus.
Asparagus Soup for Dad
Organic ingredients — especially for the broth, cream and sour cream — really make a difference here.
Serves 4 to 6
2 pounds asparagus
3 cups chicken or vegetable broth
1 small yellow onion
3 tablespoons butter
¼ cup whipping cream
1 tablespoon lemon juice
Sour cream for dolloping
Salt and fresh-ground pepper
How to prep asparagus: Rinse each stalk well, then chop an inch or so off the butt end; discard those bits. My family then stores the stalks, up to several days, at room temperature standing upright in a bowl of water; this (perhaps apocryphally) is thought to rejuice them. When you’re ready to cook, bend each stalk until it snaps partway up from the butt end; magically, the top is the good part to eat, but the bottoms are also used for this soup (or you can hoard them in your freezer for future asparagus stock).
For the soup: Bring the butt ends of the asparagus to a boil in the broth, then reduce heat and simmer 25 minutes. Strain and reserve broth (you can smush extra liquid out of asparagus butts with a wooden spoon if you’re motivated); discard asparagus butts. Sauté onion in butter until soft, sprinkling with a little salt and pepper. Cut the asparagus into about 2-inch pieces; reserve the dozen or so prettiest, smallest tips for garnish. Add the stock and the asparagus pieces to the butter and onion; bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer, stirring occasionally, about 5 minutes, until pieces are soft to the bite. Blend in batches or with an immersion blender until fairly smooth. Stir in cream and then lemon juice; taste and season with salt and pepper (it’ll want some of both). Garnish each bowl with a dollop of sour cream and asparagus tips, plus a little pepper over the top.