Wednesday, May 16, 2018

“Fat is where it’s at” when it comes to Washington asparagus

Colleen Donovan
Farmers Market Integrity Project

Sizing up spears was one of many lessons growers shared with a group of King County farmers market managers who headed from “market to farm” to learn about Washington asparagus. Knowing where, when and how asparagus grows, what to expect from market vendors, and facts to share with shoppers helps farmers market managers better promote Washington farmers.

Tip number one: don’t go skinny.

“Fat is where it’s at. Thin is not in!” was how farmer Alan Schreiber explained that asparagus with thicker spears is more tender than “skinny” asparagus. The greater girth gives fibers more breathing room. Farmer Manny Canales noted that the skinny asparagus is tougher because it works harder to stay upright in the spring winds of the lower Yakima Valley.

Another interesting takeaway from the day was that Washington’s asparagus varieties usually have dark purple “bracts” – those triangles on the sides of the spear. The “tip” of the asparagus is made up of lots of bracts. And the colder the temperatures, the more purple you should see in the asparagus. So, expect more purple in your asparagus in early April at the beginning of the season than at the end in June.

What should you look for when buying asparagus at your farmers market? According to Alan and Manny:

  • Look for asparagus with the white end of the spear left on. This is the part that was once underground. This might look a little less neat and tidy, but it preserves the plant’s energy and keeps it fresher.
  • To get the best part of the spear, farmers recommend snapping off the bottom instead of cutting. As the asparagus ages, the “snapping point” moves up the spear. So, fresher asparagus breaks closer to the bottom end. 
  • The tip should be tight and not starting to flower. 
  • Well-cared for asparagus has been kept cool and hydrated. Outdoors at a market, look for spears standing in water. Treat asparagus like cut flowers to make it last.
  • If the bundle has a regular rubber band and has mixed sizes, then it has not been through a packing line. (The classic blue bands with PLU 4080 printed or PLU 94080, if organic, are usually for asparagus headed to wholesale markets.)  

According to Alan, who is also the Executive Director of the Washington Asparagus Commission, when asparagus is super fresh, you can rub two spears together and they squeak. But, to keep the peace, don’t try this at the farmers market until after you’ve bought your bundle. That’s a tip from the market managers.

Once you have your fresh, fat, Washington-grown asparagus, you can steam, simmer, roast, grill, or sauté it. Asparagus is incredibly versatile. The snapped off ends are great for flavoring soup stocks!
Asparagus is great for you too: low fat and packed with nutrition, especially Vitamin A, Vitamin C, and folate.

Now’s the time to find Washington asparagus at a Washington farmers market. Enjoy! And remember: “Fat is where it’s at; thin is not in.”

Colleen Donovan is the Coordinator for the Farmers Market Integrity Project, a statewide collaboration of market managers, farmers, and industry leaders working to ensure transparency in local foods.