Asparagus season lasts suntil the end of June, according to Lyle Wells, who farms about 60 acres of asparagus on his family's 350-year-old Riverhead farm. "This year, it started at the beginning of May, and usually goes about eight weeks," he said.
Asparagus is my hands-down favorite vegetable, but, until I visited Wells' farm earlier this month, I had never seen how it grows. Turns out, it's sort of crazy.
A hectic harvest
Asparagus spears grow straight out of the ground, like little green soldiers. The plant is a perennial, lasting 15 to 20 years. The first two years, you let the spears come up and then bolt (go to seed) without harvesting them. The third year, harvesting begins. And what a laborious harvest it is.
The spears grow extremely quickly. Early in the season, when the weather is cool, it takes them about three days from poking their tips out of the ground to achieving full, harvestable height. Toward the end of the season, it can take only one day. What this means is that the farmer must go down every row, almost every day, to harvest whatever asparagus is ready.
At Wells' farm, three farmworkers sit on a low, motorized harvester that slowly chugs down the field. Each worker holds a knife and smartly cuts off at the base every spear he or she encounters, transferring it to a big box.
The boxes are brought to a shack where another worker snaps off the woody ends,then packs the spears neatly into wooden crates. Each season, Wells harvests from 4,000 to 5,000 crates weighing 30 pounds each and sells them to local farm stands, supermarkets and Fresh Direct.
I asked Wells the two most important questions about asparagus: Which do you prefer, fat or thin? Why does asparagus affect the odor of urine?
The laconic farmer responded: "Fat. Sulfur."
Here's a little more on the odor issue, from an article on Smithsonian.com by Joseph Stromberg: "Asparagusic acid ...is only found in asparagus. When our bodies digest the vegetable, they break down... into a group of related sulfur-containing compounds with long, complicated names....As with many other substances that include sulfur -- such as garlic, skunk spray and odorized natural gas -- these sulfur-containing molecules convey a powerful, typically unpleasant scent."
I'm with Wells on fat spears. But regardless of which you prefer, try to buy spears that are all the same thickness, or they will not cook evenly. When you get home from the market, saw off the bottom half-inch or so of the spears (keeping the elastic bands in place) and stand them in a stable, straight-sided vessel that has about a quarter-inch of water in the bottom. I cover the asparagus loosely with the plastic bag it came in and put it in the refrigerator. Asparagus handled this way will keep for up to a week as long as you replenish the water.
How to prepare it
Now, to peel or not to peel. As with the fat-thin debate, there are two schools of thought. Some say you should grasp each spear with both hands, bend it until it breaks and discard the portion below the breaking point. To me, this is a crazy waste of perfectly good asparagus. I trim the bottom of each spear so the exposed flesh is moist and firm. Then, using a vegetable peeler, I peel the bottom 2 inches. A side benefit of this method is that because the thickest part of the asparagus is now shorn of its peel, it will cook more evenly.
If your asparagus is very thin, don't bother to peel. Just cut off the bottom inch or so.
Lyle Wells told me his favorite way to eat asparagus is with scrambled eggs. Another point of agreement.