Toppenish-area farmer Kevin Bouchey has an affinity for asparagus, which his family has been growing since 1979. “It’s a funny crop,” says Bouchey, who also farms wheat and potatoes. “In a given farm year, you usually grow a plant and then harvest the crop later. Asparagus is kind of backwards. But it’s a fun crop to raise.”
Asparagus is harvested in the spring, when its first shoots come through the earth, long before the plant has the benefit of maturing.
Asparagus officianalis comes from the lily family, along with leeks, garlic, and onions. It was first cultivated 2,500 years ago, and throughout history has been considered a delicacy. Today, it is the quintessential Northwest vegetable, usually posed on a plate with a pink wedge of salmon.
Asparagus is native to Europe, North Africa, and parts of Asia. Though now a staple of French cuisine, asparagus wasn’t grown in France before the 17th century, when King Louis XIV developed a taste for it. In England, for a time, the sprout was called “sparrow grass” a name that has lingered. Today growers call it “grass.” It can be had in purple and white varieties, though most American asparagus comes in green.
Chef Gene Fritz, culinary educator of the School of Hospitality Business Management at Washington State University, says he prefers to use local and seasonal foods when preparing special meals at the president’s house. Spring asparagus fits the bill.
“When it’s in season, I do everything I can around it,” he says. “It has such a subtle flavor profile, it matches really well with a lot of other regional ingredients.” Sometimes he marinates the spears in a vinaigrette and serves them grilled alongside halibut or salmon, other times he purees them in a hazelnut cream soup. “I haven’t done it up in a desert yet, but who knows.”
He also uses it as a foil for rich dishes like his Cougar Gold scalloped potatoes. “It has the function of being a refreshing component on the plate,” he says.
The good news for local epicures is that when it is in season, asparagus abounds. Washington is second only to California in asparagus production in the United States. The bad news is that in recent years the industry has been hit with international competition, rising labor costs, and the closure of the canning plant in Dayton. Some farmers are tearing out their asparagus fields, while others are redirecting their efforts toward the fresh market.
“Washington asparagus has gone through a major acreage cycle,” says Ray Folwell, agriculture economist at WSU. “It peaked in the ’80s with 32,000 acres. We’re now down to about 14,000 acres.”
Researchers at WSU are looking at ways to keep Washington’s asparagus industry healthy by making it more competitive. They’re working on increasing the vegetable’s shelf life and developing methods to mechanically harvest and pack the crop. Asparagus is the only local crop that has to be harvested entirely by hand.
“It’s extremely labor intensive,” says Trent Ball, a WSU research associate. “But when you have humans out there, they can see which spears need to be culled and which can be picked. Mimicking that from a technology standpoint is very difficult.”
Since fewer asparagus spears are destined for canning this spring, more are available fresh. Now is the time to look for the Washington asparagus in markets and grocery stores. Our season started in April and should last through June, says Bouchey.
The Larousse Gastronomique advises selecting asparagus with stems that are firm and uniformly colored. It may be stored in the refrigerator for a day or two, and is best kept upright in a dish with about an inch of water. Also look for it to be uniform in size. “It’s kind of an old wives’ tale that the larger, plumper spears are tougher than the slender spears,” says Bouchey. “That’s not true. The problem is they’re hard to cook at the same time.”
For more than a month now, workers have been culling over Bouchey’s fields, bending and bobbing as they hand pick asparagus shoots. Bouchey’s fresh crop goes to grocery wholesalers, and he urges readers to ask their retailers to stock domestic asparagus. Though most of his crop is headed to major stores, some stays home. “I love it,” he says. “My new favorite way is grilled on the barbecue.”