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Last Chance Foods: Asparagus

Friday, May 07, 2010

For those who love asparagus, now is the time to eat locally grown varieties. Farmers are harvesting asparagus weeks earlier than usual because of the warm weather this spring. And since crops can really only be cut for about eight weeks without damaging the plant, that means there's now only four weeks before asparagus season is over.

At Donaldson Farms in Hackettstown, N.J., Greg Donaldson (pictured below) has been growing the Jersey-specific varieties of asparagus for about 20 years. Jersey Knight and Jersey Giant are two types that were developed by Rutgers University to thrive in the Northeast area. His advice for picking out the best bunches is to go for stalks that are about as wide as a thumb. "If you're getting asparagus grown locally, the thicker it is the better," he says, adding the caveat that the product shipped in from countries like Peru is almost always tougher.

Asparagus is also a delicate and labor-intensive plant to grow, since it usually takes two years before it yields a substantial harvest. Then, once it is ready, all the stalks must be cut by hand. For Donaldson, that means one-and-a-half acres worth of work, but since asparagus is a perennial, there's no need to replant every year. "The one field that we're still cutting from we've had int he ground for 20 years," he explains.

Donaldson doesn't grow organically on his farm, which has been in his family since 1896, but he does use best practices, which he says naturally tend toward more efficient growing. He points out that Rutgers monitors both weather conditions, such as leaf wetness, and insect activity on the farm, which helps him limit the use of chemicals amd pesticides. Last year, alerts were sent out so he knew that late blight was likely to hit the tomatoes, so he staked his plants and kept them dry and off the ground, avoiding any problems.

And as for asparagus' odoriferous side effect, even Donaldson was surprised to discover that it doesn't happen to everyone across the board. "Less than 50 percent of people have that effect," he says. "I never really realized that...so when you joke about it, some people have no idea what you're talking about."

Below is Donaldson's favorite asparagus recipe, which he notes is perfect for picnics.

Marinated & Chilled Jersey Fresh Asparagus

by Greg Donaldson

  • 1 lb. Jersey fresh asparagus
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 1/2 cup balsamic vinegar
  • 1/4 cup fresh grated parmesan cheese
  • 2 Tbsp. fresh chopped basil
  • 2 cloves minced garlic


1. Steam asparagus to your liking. (Suggestion: Leave it with a little crunch.)
2. Run asparagus under cold water to chill after steaming.
3. Place in a tray or zip lock bag.
4. Mix all ingredients, except for the parmesan cheese, in a bowl and add to asparagus.
5. Place in refrigerator to chill for 15 minutes.
6. Sprinkle parmesan cheese on top and enjoy!

Guests:

Greg Donaldson

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Comments [3]

Thanks for feedback!

Susan: I imagine the reason the stores continue to sell traditional-looking asparagus (which Greg said is often shipped in from Peru) simply because that's what people expect to see when buying it. Since people aren't sampling the raw thing then and there, they need to go by appearances when purchasing, and often, taste will suffer for it. Fortunately, with the growing popularity of farmers' markets, different and local varieties really get more of a chance to shine.

Carola: I did a little digging and while I haven't found a definitive source to cite, it seems like it's both. There's only a certain percentage of people who produce, as well as only some who can smell it. Thanks for the note!

May. 13 2010 10:12 AM
Susan Zientek

Nice interview...also nice recipe. We planted our asparagus(just for ourown and our neighbors' consumption) about 4 years ago here in Farmingdale New Jersey. I find the thicker the tastier. Some are about an inch and a half in diameter...funny looking and purple, but yummmmmmy. Why do the stores sell only thumb-thick green asparagus when the best tasting asparagus is the funny looking kind we have?

May. 07 2010 06:01 PM
Carola from Brooklyn, NY

Regarding the issue of "asparagus' odoriferous side effect," I've heard that the genetic difference is not in who's affected by eating it, but who is able to _detect_ the odor. In other words, we all have the "side effect," but only about half of us can _smell_ it. Please let Greg D. know!

May. 07 2010 05:58 PM

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Last Chance Foods covers produce that’s about to go out of season, gives you a heads up on what’s still available at the farmers market and tells you how to keep it fresh through the winter.

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