Now that warmer weather may finally be here to stay, the Ontario asparagus crop can really get moving. Along with the always welcome and delicious green stalks, keep your eyes peeled for the Purple Passion variety.
These firm, juicy burgundy stalks, common in Europe, are sweeter than traditional green asparagus and maintain their deep colour when roasted or shaved raw in salads. When boiled they turn dark green.
With just a few of Ontario’s 85 asparagus producers growing the purple spears, however, you may only find them at independent stores and farmers’ markets. I found them wrapped in a Styrofoam tray at Foodland on the Danforth.
Purple Passion aficionado Bernt (Bernie) Solymar, executive director of Asparagus Farmers of Ontario in Simcoe, hopes to paint the province purple in a few years by importing three new European varieties and encouraging growers to give them a try next spring.
“It would make a good specialty crop,” he says, “and chefs love the splash of colour it adds.”
Growers began harvesting long-awaited green spears at the end of April, nearly two weeks earlier than usual. Cool nights and rain slowed the crop significantly, but we should have lots to choose from between now and the season’s end, around June 21.
PS To be sure you’re buying local, look for Canada or Ontario on the rubber band or tag.
Thick or thin?
Thick and thin asparagus spears are the same age, they emerge randomly from the ground and can grow 7 inches (18 cm) on a warm day. Thicker stalks are actually more tender than thin and more plentiful earlier in the season. They’re also fantastic for grilling.
Buy & Store
- Ontario asparagus can be in-store within two to three days of harvest.
- Look for straight, crisp spears with tightly-closed green or purple tips.
- Buy spears with the same diameter so they cook evenly.
- To store, wrap ends in a damp paper towel, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate two to three days.
- Rinse under cold water then snap off (you’ll feel it) and discard tough, woody ends.
- Save stems and peelings for a spring vegetable soup.
- Boil: Add enough water to saucepan to just cover spears, plus 1 tsp (5 mL) salt. Cook until tender crisp; drain well. Do not overcook!!
- Steam: Tightly cover and cook over boiling water 4 to 8 minutes.
- Roast: Drizzle with oil and roast 8 to 10 minutes in 450F (230C) oven, turning occasionally. Grate Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese on top.
- Grill: Trim and toss with a little oil, salt and pepper. Place on oiled grill over medium-high heat, turning occasionally, til lightly charred, 5 to 7 minutes.
- Microwave: Cover with 2 tbsp (30 mL) water and cook on High 4 to 6 minutes.
- Stir-fry: Cut diagonally into 1-inch (2.5 cm) pieces; sauté in hot oil 5 to 7 minutes.
- Eat asparagus raw or cooked, from breakfast to dinner.
- Pair cooked spears with boiled or scrambled eggs. Or slip into a frittata, quiche or cheese soufflé.
- Lightly dress with olive oil, steam and wrap in thinly-sliced prosciutto. Or bundle three spears with prosciutto and grill.
- Sauté with shrimp, or with garlic and wild mushrooms.
- Pair with Dijon mustard, lemon, tarragon, dill, sorrel, butter, Parmesan or goat cheese.
- Make soup, add to risotto or slice thinly into a baby kale Caesar salad.
- Add to a warm German potato salad or substitute for green beans in a salade Niçoise.
- Press a dark rye panini layered with pre-grilled asparagus, Black Forest ham, Swiss cheese and mustard.
- Raw: Wash and trim 1 lb (450 g) asparagus. With a vegetable peeler, shave one spear at a time into long, thin ribbons. Transfer to bowl. Combine ¼ cup (60 mL) finely grated Parmigiano Reggiano, 2 tbsp (30 mL) lemon juice and ¼ cup (60 mL) extra virgin olive oil in a jar. Shake to blend, season with salt and pepper. Drizzle over shaved asparagus; toss to coat. Shave more cheese on top. Makes 4 servings.
Roasted Asparagus and Trout
This easy one-pan Foodland Ontario recipe is one of my favourites and fantastic for spring entertaining. When summer comes try cherry tomatoes, green beans or other local vegetables, adjusting cooking time as needed.
5 medium potatoes (1.5 lb/750 g), peeled, halved lengthwise and thinly sliced
¼ cup (60 mL) olive oil
2 tbsp (30 mL) lemon juice
1 tbsp (15 mL) chopped fresh dill
2 tsp (10 mL) grainy mustard
1 clove garlic, minced
¼ tsp (2 mL) each salt and pepper
1 lb (450 g) rainbow trout (2 fillets) or steelhead trout, cut in four pieces
1 lb (450 g) asparagus, ends snapped
Preheat oven to 400F (200C). Toss potato slices with 1 tbsp (15 mL) oil and a pinch of salt and pepper. Arrange on a greased baking sheet. Roast 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, whisk lemon juice, dill, mustard, garlic, remaining 3 tbsp (45 mL) oil, salt and pepper. Set aside.
Drape fish fillets, skin-side down, over potatoes. Arrange asparagus over fish and drizzle all with lemon dressing. Return to oven and roast about 15 minutes or until potatoes are tender, trout flakes easily and asparagus is tender-crisp.
Makes 4 servings.