Come springtime in New England, asparagus pokes up through the softened earth as we clear our counter tops and menus for the influx ahead. The short torrential growing season demands we call the nubby stalks dinner for eight or so weeks running (usually May to June although April isn’t out of the ordinary). Folks around here lovingly refer to the vegetable as Hadley “grass”, named after one of the riverbed towns kissed with sandy soil. Once known as “the asparagus capital of the world”, a number of towns lining the Connecticut River Valley in Western Massachusetts staked claim to this title during the grass’s forty year heyday from the 1930s-70s.
That all changed in the mid-1970s when a soil-borne fungus called Fusarium blew into town and shook down the farmers and their asparagus crops. A few farmers fought back and grew new hybrid plants although most turned a cold shoulder, dug up their fields to plant corn, onions, potatoes, and tobacco in its stead. Today total asparagus production is about one tenth of what it used to be during the glory years (around 50 tons or a couple million spears hand-picked daily). Still, I think we should celebrate those years and put a sign back up commemorating the green spear years. Asparagus is still a way of life here. We frequent our favorite farms stands and pose the same question to neighbors and strangers alike — So what are you making with your grass tonight?
Usually I reply with Oh, you know. The old standby — roasted asparagus with olive oil and coarse sea salt. As the weeks pass and our collection grows, so do our creative responses. The conversations turn to Ginger Asparagus Soup, Asparagus and Almond Chevre on Toast, Asparagus Cream Sauce with Penne Pasta, and the like.
Yesterday as I washed and dried an asparagus bundle, I strayed with thoughts of pickles (and sushi—but you’ll have to wait until next time to see the pickles in action). Quick pickles: slightly sweet and sour with hints of fennel, spice, and garlic. After a few iterations, I came up with this vinegar pickle recipe which is equally chummy with carrots. I haven’t tried it out on cucumbers or say fennel bulbs, I imagine they would work nicely as well. This recipe makes two pint-sized jars of pickles of your choice. I like having a variety, a cold top shelf pickle party if you will, but feel free to go all asparagus or with whatever suits you.
Quick Vinegar Pickles
makes 2 pint size jars with lids
1 1/2 cups apple cider vinegar
1 1/2 cups water
1/2 cup natural cane sugar
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons yellow mustard seeds
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
2 whole cloves
3 garlic cloves (peeled and thinly sliced)
a pinch of dried chile flakes
4 fennel sprigs
3/4 pound asparagus (tough ends removed and snapped in halves)
3/4 pound carrots (peeled, halved and quartered)
Bring the vinegar, water, sugar, salt, spices, garlic, and pepper to a boil in a saucepan, then lower the heat to a simmer. Add the fennel sprigs and asparagus to the simmering brine. Cook about 2 minutes, just until the asparagus is tender and still bright green. Pack the cooked asparagus in a pint jar; set aside. Next add the carrots to the liquid and cook 7 minutes, again just until the they are tender when pierced with a knife and bright in color. Pack the cooked carrots in the second pint jar. Cool the brine then pour half into the asparagus filled jar and the other half into the carrot jar. Cover and refrigerate. The pickles are ready to serve or store in the refrigerator.