Archive for March, 2012
Images of tall, tight bunches of purple-tinged, green and white asparagus in the grocery store signal the arrival of spring. I love grilling, steaming and adding asparagus to spring dishes but I had never seen an asparagus field before. When I think of a row crop I think of nice straight lines. Asparagus spears break that rule as they shoot straight up out of the ground in random places from a new “eye” on the crown. If you drive by an asparagus field you might think the field is full of weeds until you take a closer look. Asparagus crowns, the root mass and buds, are planted densely on the fields. New hybrid varieties can produce for a few weeks after a year in the ground and older varieties may take up to 3 years to produce. Once the plant is established it grows every year and can produce for 10 years or longer. The stalks only turn green when they are exposed to the sun and develop chlorophyll. White asparagus is covered with mounds of dirt so they are never exposed to the sun and is said to have a milder flavor than green asparagus. As the weather warms, a single asparagus spear can grow anywhere from 6 to 10 inches in a single day.
The field workers tediously cut asparagus spears by hand with a special forked knife, laying them at the end of the rows to be picked up later. Once the asparagus are done being harvested for the season they go to fern, the tips turn feathery, which allows the plants to transfer carbohydrates and energy to the roots by photosynthesis and to store nutrients to make next year’s crop sweeter and richer tasting.
The height of the season in California runs from March to June. California asparagus is mainly grown at the confluence of California’s two greatest rivers, the Sacramento and the San Joaquin, in the rich peat of the delta lands an hour south of Sacramento and in the Salinas Valley about 2 hours south of San Francisco. California produces over 70 percent of the nation’s fresh market asparagus.
Coastal View Produce a 3rd generation Violini family farm located in Gonzales, CA in the heart of the Salinas Valley has been growing high-quality organic asparagus for almost 40 years. Brian Violini’s Grandfather was a Swiss immigrant who started a new life in the fertile Salinas Valley. “I can remember being 10 years old and pulling weeds and moving sprinklers for my grandfather,” says Brian Violini, who now runs Coastal View Produce with his brother. “We’ve had this farm for three generations. My grandfather came over from Switzerland. He started with a dairy, then moved into farming. My dad and my uncle ran the farm after him, and now it’s me and my brother. Farming, it’s all we know.”
With consumer demand for organic food continuing to grow, Coastal View sees farming organically as both a competitive market decision and a way to promote a healthy ecosystem on the farm for generations to come. “The main thing we’re known for is asparagus,” says Violini. “We started with organic asparagus when I was in high school.” Violini attributes the consistent high quality of his crop to the mild Salinas weather in the winter and spring. “It’s not too hot, not too cold—it stays around 65–75 degrees. We used to plant in sandy soil, but now we’ve got most of the crop in a heavier clay soil, and it does just fine.”
The size of the spears comes from the age of the plant and is a personal preference. The youngest plants produce the skinny stalks. The thicker spears from older plants are said to be more succulent because they contain higher levels of carbohydrates. You decide, but make sure to look for blemish free asparagus with tightly closed tips and avoid wilted looking stalks. Try to eat them as soon as you buy them but you can store them upright in the refrigerator in a dish of water or wrap a damp towel over the ends and store in a plastic bag.
When you’re ready to eat them, snap or cut off the white portion of the butt end of the asparagus. They’re perfect coated with olive oil and roasted, which leaves them firmer, nuttier and sweeter than steaming. Asparagus is high vitamin C and K and folic acid and contain less than 50 calories per 6 oz serving. Click here for more recipes.
If you missed An Organic Conversation “Moving Past The Lawn: Environmental Landscaping” on Saturday March 24th Earl spoke about asparagus on the “What’s In Season” segment. Download it here
Also check out California’s largest asparagus festival in Stockton on April 27th-29th
Shaved Asparagus Pizza
Makes 1 thin crust 12-inch pizza
1 recipe Really Simple Pizza Dough or your favorite pizza dough
1/2 pound asparagus
1/4 cup grated Parmesan
1/2 pound mozzarella, shredded or cut into small cubes
2 teaspoons olive oil
1/2 teaspoon coarse salt
Several grinds black pepper
1 scallion, thinly sliced
Preheat your oven to the hottest temperature it goes, or about 500 in most cases. If you use a pizza stone, have it in there.
Prepare asparagus: No need to snap off ends; they can be your “handles” as you peel the asparagus. Holding a single asparagus spear by its tough end, lay it flat on a cutting board and using a vegetable peeler (a Y-shaped peeler works best here, but I only had a standard, old and pretty dull peeler and it still worked; a mandolin would also work, in theory, but I found it more difficult to do it that way), create long shavings of asparagus by drawing the peeler from the base to the top of the stalk. Repeat with remaining stalks and don’t fret some pieces are unevenly thick (such as the end of the stalk, which might be too thin to peel); the mixed textures give a great character to the pizza. Discard tough ends. Toss peelings with olive oil, salt and pepper in a bowl and be sure to try one — I bet you can hardly believe how good raw asparagus can taste.
Assemble and bake pizza: Roll or stretch out your pizza dough to a 12-inch round. Either transfer to a floured or cornmeal-dusted pizza peel (if using a pizza stone in the oven) or to a floured or cornmeal-dusted tray to bake it on. Sprinkle pizza dough with Parmesan, then mozzarella. Pile asparagus on top. Bake pizza for 10 to 15 minutes, or until edges are browned, the cheese is bubbly and the asparagus might be lightly charred. Remove from the oven and immediately sprinkle with scallions, then slice and eat.
Baby Greens and Asparagus with Almond Vinaigrette
18 asparagus spears (about 1 pound), trimmed
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1/2 pound white or oyster mushrooms, finely sliced
1 clove garlic, minced
2 tablespoons chopped fresh Italian flat leaf parsley
Juice of 1 lemon
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 pound (6 cups loosely packed) baby greens, such as oak leaf, mache, and watercress
Almond Vinaigrette (see recipe below)
Blanch the asparagus in a large saucepan of boiling salted water until bright green, about 1 to 2 minutes. Immediately transfer to a bowl of iced water. Drain and cut on the diagonal into 2-inch-long pieces. Set aside.
Heat the olive oil in a medium skillet over medium heat until very hot. Sauté the mushrooms just to soften, about 1 minute. Add the garlic and sauté briefly until the aroma is released. Remove from the heat. Stir in the parsley, lemon juice, salt, and pepper and set aside to cool.
In a large mixing bowl, lightly toss the baby greens with about half of the Almond Vinaigrette. Divide into 6 portions and place on serving plates. Divide the mushrooms and sprinkle across the top.
In the same bowl, toss the blanched asparagus with the remaining vinaigrette. Divide among the salads, fanning the spears across the top.
Makes 3/4 cup
1/2 cup slivered blanched almonds
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lime juice
2 tablespoons water
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Spread the almonds on a baking sheet and bake until slightly golden, about 5 minutes. Set aside to cool.
When the almonds are cool, transfer to a blender or food processor along with the remaining ingredients. Puree until smooth. Store in a container in the refrigerator up to 5 days.
You might be wondering, what are those green bumpy things? Cherimoya’s are a tropical tasting fruit that is creamy inside, almost like a custard. Just cut them in half, pick out the large black seeds and scoop away. My favorite way to eat them is to cut them in half, wrap them in plastic and place in the freezer. When they are frozen the flesh is like ice cream. They are in season from now until June. Read our blog on our home page for how to choose the best Cherimoya.
Cherimoyas are one of my favorite tropical fruits. I tried my first one at a farmers market in Hawaii and I was hooked. Cherimoyas can grow as small as ¼ pound each up to 5 pounds and are a conical or heart shaped green fruit covered in bumps. The flesh is white and creamy and dotted with big black seeds. Depending on the variety, they are mellow sweet to tangy or acidic sweet with suggestions of mangos, pineapples, banana, papaya, strawberries and vanilla custard but honestly I can’t compare it to anything else. Mark Twain called the cherimoya “deliciousness itself.” The season runs from March to June with the peak time in March and April. Cherimoya’s are grown in California from Santa Barbara all the way down to San Diego.
The cherimoya is believed indigenous to Ecuador, Colombia, Bolivia and Peru and was introduced to California in 1871. George Cunningham, his wife Gale and son Greg from Cunningham Organic Farm grow cherimoyas along with avocados, grapefruit, guavas, kumquats, lemons, limes, macadamias, oranges, passionfruit, persimmons and tangerines. Cunningham Organic Farm is located in a secluded valley next to the Cleveland National Forest and midway between Los Angeles and San Diego. George started off with 10 Cherimoya trees and continued to add more. The trees need to be spaced out because they branch out and can form a canopy in about 7-8 years. Now he is up to 4 acres of cherimoyas and looking to add more.
Look for firm, unripe fruit that are heavy for their size and let them ripen at room temperature out of the sunlight. Cherimoyas are similar to avocados and should be treated with care so they don’t bruise. Wait a few days until the flesh yields to gentle pressure and the skin has turned slightly brown. Once you notice the first sign of ripeness wait another day or two to eat but not much longer because the sugars in the flesh will start to ferment. Ripe cherimoyas can be stored in the refrigerator, wrapped in a paper towel for up to 4 days.
A quick word of warning, only eat the flesh of the cherimoya! The black seeds are toxic and can cause vomiting, nausea, dryness of the mouth, burning in the throat and eating the seeds can cause paralysis that can last up to five hours. You don’t want to have a delicious half-eaten cherimoya on your plate and not be able to eat it. Cherimoyas are full of nutrients including riboflavin, niacin, and vitamin C.
The simplest way to eat a cherimoya is to scoop out the flesh with a spoon and pick out the large black seeds. My favorite way is to cut it in half, wrap it in plastic and put it in the freezer. When you scoop it out it is creamy like ice cream. What a perfect treat on a warm day.
One of my favorite fruits this winter is the versatile tiny Kumquat. It is unique in its size, averaging about an inch long and in its flavor, where the sweetness comes from the rind instead of the flesh. You don’t have to peel them and they are small enough to pop in your mouth. I also love to slice them up and mix them in a salad, salsa or a smoothie.
The oval shaped Nagami is the most commonly sold with a sweet rind and very tart flesh. You are in for a powerful sensory experience as the ZING of the sourness hits your taste buds and your mouth puckers up. The second most commonly seen variety is the round shaped Meiwa with a spicy sweet rind and flesh. You may find a few seeds inside but they are edible. They have been described as “flavor bombs” and you will understand what I mean when you taste one. The Meiwa is my personal favorite and if I have a handful in front of me I will eat them one by one until suddenly they are gone.
Kumquats are a unique member of the citrus family and are thought to come from China. The name comes from the Chinese words chin kan meaning golden orange. Kumquats arrived in California about 1880 but starting in the late 1960s, increased Asian immigration to California spurred demand and prices for kumquats. Today, California has 133 acres of kumquats.
Kumquats can be hard to find at times but worth searching out. California leads the nation in production. Northern San Diego county is where many farms focus on specialty crops such as kumquats but they can be found growing as far north as Placerville, north of Sacramento.
George Cunningham from Cunningham Organic Farm grows kumquatsalong with avocados, grapefruit, guavas, cherimoyas, lemons, limes, macadamias, oranges, passionfruit, persimmons and tangerines. Cunningham Organic Farm is located in a secluded valley next to the Cleveland National Forest and midway between Los Angeles and San Diego. George and Gale Cunningham moved with their family to the beautiful DeLuz Canyon, north of Fallbrook, in 1974. They set out to become farmers. Not being farm-savvy enough to grow with conventional methods of farming (using chemicals and pesticides), they decided to grow organically (before the time when that eco-friendly word was heavily used). It was their personal endeavor at that time, and remains so today, to grow the best-tasting, most nutritious food available anywhere and it’s all natural. Kumquat trees are very hardy with a prolonged dormancy stage and almost never grow more than 12 feet. They require a warm summer and can withstand temperatures down to 14 degrees. The trees don’t start growing until there is warm weather and they don’t blossom until midsummer. If you can grow Meyer lemons in your backyard then a kumquat tree would most likely grow well. They are in season from November to June.
Kumquats provide potassium, vitamins A and C and are a good source of fiber. As a reminder, let all citrus come to room temperature first and then roll it on the counter a few times to bring out the full essence of the fruit and to yield more juice.