Springtime asparagus sprouting early in central San Joaquin Valley

The Fresno BeeMarch 3, 2014 

This harvest season, many of the central San Joaquin Valley's fruits and vegetables are on the fast track to ripening. And one early arrival at area farmers markets is asparagus, a springtime favorite.

Recent mild temperatures have accelerated asparagus harvest by about two to three weeks. But no one seems to be complaining, especially Carmen Pacheco of Fresno.

"This is one of the things we look forward to every year. They are just divine," says Pacheco with excitement. "We are so blessed to be living in this area and having all these fresh fruits and vegetables available to us."

Pacheco picked up several bunches of asparagus spears from Hanford farmer Rocio Agraz at the Vineyard Farmers Market last week. The market is on the northwest corner of Blackstone and Shaw avenues and is open on Wednesdays from 3-6 p.m. and on Saturday's from 7 a.m. to noon.

Asparagus is expected at the Kaiser Permanente Fresno farmers market in about two weeks. The market is held from 8 a.m.-1:30 p.m. on Wednesdays at 7300 N. Fresno St.

Pacheco was happy to see the thin stalks on Agraz's table. She prefers her asparagus to be on the thinner side, saying they are more tender. During the summer, she grills asparagus on the barbecue, coating them with a little olive oil and sea salt.

"They have such a wonderful sweet and earthy flavor," Pacheco says.

Valley farmers grow asparagus in three colors — green, white and purple. Although some people might not be able to tell a taste difference, others say the purple can taste a little sweeter and is slightly less fibrous.

Beer battered asparagus with three sauces

2 cups pilsner or light flavored beer

1/2 cup cornstarch

1 1/2 cups flour

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon pepper

1 tablespoon paprika

peanut or canola oil for deep-frying

Salt and pepper

3 pounds fresh asparagus, ends trimmed

Heat deep fryer to 375 degrees. Combine first six ingredients in blender and blend until well mixed.

Transfer batter to medium bowl. Dip asparagus in batter and deep fry until golden brown, and tender, about 2-3 minutes. Drain on paper towels and season with salt and pepper.

Serve warm with three sauces.

To make dips:

Jalapeño ketchup: Mix 1 cup ketchup with 1 teaspoon grilled fresh jalapeño, minced, 1 teaspoon minced chipotle in adobo, 1 teaspoon lime juice, and 1 tablespoon olive oil, salt and pepper to taste.

Curry dip: Mix 1/2 cup yogurt with 1/2 cup mayonnaise.

Add 1 teaspoon yellow curry powder, 1 teaspoon chopped ginger. Salt and pepper to taste.

Parmesan herb dip: Mix 1/2 cup mayonnaise with 1/2 cup sour cream and 1/4 cup buttermilk. Add 1 tablespoon chopped fresh chives, marjoram and Italian parsley. Add 3 tablespoons grated Parmesan and 1 teaspoon lemon juice. Salt and pepper to taste.

California asparagus and goat cheese tart

Puff pastry, store bought, frozen

For the filling:

4 ounces log goat cheese

1 ounce cream cheese

1 egg

1/2 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper

For the topping:

2 tablespoons olive oil

1/2 cup onion, diced

12 ounces asparagus, ends discarded

Salt to taste

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Blend all filling ingredients in food processor until smooth. Slice off 1/2 of pastry sheet, approximately 10 by 5 inches. Roll pastry out to 13 by 5 inches. Place on a parchment lined sheet pan. Spread filling on top of puff pastry, leaving a 1/2-inch border. Refrigerate until ready to assemble.

Heat oil in a sauté pan. Add diced onion. Cover and sauté until caramelized. Chop asparagus into 1-inch pieces. Add to pan. Season with salt. Sauté 2-3 minutes. Arrange asparagus mixture on top of the pastry (add chopped red bell pepper for color).

Bake for 20-25 minutes or until pastry is golden brown. Transfer to cutting board. Slice as desired.

Serve warm or at room temperature.

Garden-fresh asparagus soup

2 tablespoons butter

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 medium onion, finely chopped

1/2 teaspoon salt, divided

1/2 teaspoon curry powder, divided

1/4 teaspoon ginger

Zest and juice of 1 lemon, divided

2 cups diced peeled red potatoes

3 cups vegetable broth or reduced sodium chicken broth

1 cup "lite" coconut milk

2 cups 1/2 inch pieces of asparagus (about one big bunch)

Freshly ground pepper to taste

For the garnish:

1/4 cup nonfat sour cream

1/4 cup chopped scallion greens or chives

Melt the butter in a large soup pot, add the oil, and heat it. Add the onion and 1/4 teaspoon salt and cook until the onions are golden, stirring often — this takes about 5 minutes.

Stir in the curry powder, ginger, lemon zest and potatoes and cook for another 5 minutes stirring occasionally. Stir in the broth, coconut milk and asparagus.

Bring to a simmer over medium heat, partially cover, and continue to cook until the potatoes are tender, about 15 minutes.

Purée the soup with a hand-held immersion blender or in batches in your blender. (Remember to remove the central cap in the top of a blender to let the steam escape so the lid doesn't blow off. I learned to just cover the hole with a bunched up towel loosely. Also it's advisable to do this step in batches so the blender is never more than about half full.) Season with remaining salt and pepper.

Whisk the nonfat sour cream, lemon juice, and chopped greens and garnish the soup with an artistic swirl.

 

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6327, brodriguez@fresnobee.com or @FresnoBeeBob on Twitter. — California Asparagus Commission — California Asparagus Commission — Dr. Preston Maring, Kaiser Permanente

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