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Sunday, December 21, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 31.0° F  Light Snow Fog/Mist
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Asparagus is here
Summer's feasting begins with the tasty stalk
on

Confession: For the last two weeks, I have eaten little else but asparagus. Breakfast, lunch and dinner, steamed, grilled, roasted, even raw, the tidy bundle barely leaving the vendor's hand before I've pulled a stalk loose to munch on. I've waited 10 months for this roughly two-month stretch of asparagus season that, once it starts, results in a lot of asparagus all at once. You must eat it - a lot of it - and then stop because the rubbery or, worse, woody supermarket stalks are an insult to fresh spring asparagus. Once you've had fresh, there's no going back.

If you think my devotion to asparagus a little fanatical, consider the fact that Europeans, particularly the Germans and the Dutch, celebrate the short but abundant asparagus season as a sort of holiday. Germans celebrate their spargel with citywide festivals featuring all-asparagus menus, asparagus peeling contests, and the crowning of an asparagus king or queen. And in the Netherlands, many restaurants feature asparagus menus and hand out asparagus neckties.

Part of what makes asparagus a cause for celebration is that it is one of the year's first major edibles after a long winter. Most of our other plant foods are the leaves, flowers, seeds or fruits of plants that begin life in spring as seedlings, only to die in autumn frosts or to fill our plates. Asparagus, on the other hand, is a perennial plant, which under the best conditions can remain productive for 20 to 30 years. That's why asparagus is one of the first to leap up in springtime - it has a head start.

The shoots emerge straight from the ground in a drive toward the sun in April, so quickly in warm weather that you can almost see them grow. Contrary to popular belief, thick or thin stalks are no better or more tender than the other. Asparagus girth is determined at birth; the stalks lengthen but do not grow substantially fatter with time. A better clue to good asparagus is to look for firm spears with closed, compact tips. Choose stalks of a similar girth - thick, thin, in-between - so they will cook in the same amount of time.

And while we're debunking myths, white asparagus, the preferred variety in Europe, is not botanically different from green. White stalks have simply been deprived of sunlight with soil, mulch or other cover mounded up high over the plant so the stalks will develop in the dark. Americans tend to prefer green, chlorophyll-blessed asparagus, so white is difficult to find outside of a can or jar in the U.S. Matt and Susan Smith of Blue Valley Gardens in Blue Mounds grow both white and green asparagus if you want to taste the difference for yourself (or feel a little European). White is generally thought milder and more tender than green.

The asparagus season is short because the plant needs enough summer life to come back next year. After a few weeks of daily cutting, the farmer calls an end to the season and lets the plant grow beyond edibility to the feathery fronds it longs to be. So act fast and eat up all you can, while you can. While asparagus does freeze well, there's nothing quite like a freshly picked bunch.

Roasted asparagus

Preheat oven to 500. Toss asparagus in olive oil to coat and lightly season with salt and pepper. Set in shallow pan. Roast in center of the oven for 6 minutes. Turn and roast for 5 minutes more.

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