In the last 50 years, robots and machines have taken farming by storm. But many asparagus growers are keeping it old school. Like Roscoe Zuckerman IV. His family has been growing asparagus in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta for more than 80 years and relies upon farmworkers to harvest the crop each year, spear by spear.
The acres of asparagus stalks grow on the farm in long rows like thick blades of grass. Some are the diameter of a No. 2 pencil, others the thickness of your thumb. You would think the thinner spears come from the baby plants, but the exact opposite is true. Younger plants produce thicker spears that are juicier and more flavorful. Zuckerman prefers the tenderness of the older, thinner stalks for salads and stir frys. Workers start harvesting the delicate spears by hand in late February. During the growing season, which is about three months long, close attention is paid to the lunar calendar since asparagus thrives under a full moon. Nutrient-rich peat in the delta soil is key to producing stalks that are rich in flavor, tender and crisp. “The San Joaquin Delta is to asparagus as Napa is to wine,” Zuckerman says. To keep it that way, the farm rotates crops in fields where asparagus was grown and leaves some asparagus fields fallow for decades.
Asparagus is a perennial plant with a life cycle of about 10 years. After the spring harvest, the Zuckermans let their asparagus fields fern out. The stalks can reach up to 5 feet tall before they are chopped up in the fields. The soil is turned in fall and spears emerge again in spring. If the farm wants to propagate new asparagus fields, root crowns are started in greenhouses before being planted in the ground.
Akira Akuto and Nick Montgomery recently relocated to California from New York and serve grilled asparagus with spring onions, pistachios and ricotta at Osso in downtown Los Angeles. They opt for thin spears because they are easier to handle in the kitchen. To prepare the dish, the chefs toss the spears with spring onions in olive oil, salt and pepper before charring them on the grill. The grilled veggies then get dressed in vinegar. A dollop of ricotta is smeared on the plate before adding the asparagus, spring onions, pistachio oil, pistachios, Meyer lemon zest and sea salt.
Grilled Asparagus with ricotta, pistachios and spring onion
Store-bought ricotta also works for this recipe. And if you can’t find Banyuls vinegar, you can always substitute with another light colored, bright tasting vinegar.
1 bunch asparagus
1 bunch spring onions
1 Meyer lemon, zested
1 tbsp pistachios, toasted and roughly chopped
1 tbsp pistachio oil
1 tbsp Banyuls vinegar
½ cup Homemade Ricotta (recipe follows)
Prepare the vegetables: Prepare the asparagus by removing the tough first inch from the stalks. For the spring onions, separate the green portion of the stalks from the white bulbs. Cut the bulbs in half, lengthwise. Then in a large bowl, toss the the asparagus and spring onion bulbs with a bit of olive oil, salt and pepper.
Next, grill the vegetables in a single layer until tender, making sure to get some nice char. Transfer the vegetables to a plate to cool and cut the asparagus stalks into bite-size pieces.
Toss the grilled vegetables with the vinegar and set aside.
To serve: Smear a dollop of fresh ricotta on a plate. Carefully assemble the grilled vegetables on top of the ricotta and drizzle lightly with pistachio oil. Garnish with toasted pistachio bits, finely grated Meyer lemon zest and a light sprinkling of sea salt.
Homemade Ricotta Ingredients
5 cups whole milk
1 cup buttermilk
¾ heavy cream
Sea salt, to taste
Day One: Whisk the milk, buttermilk and heavy cream together in a large pot over medium heat until it reaches 180ºF. You’ll want to turn off the heat before the mixture comes to a boil. Remove the pot from heat and allow to cool to room temperature. Then cover the mixture and chill in the refrigerator for at least 12 hours or overnight.
Day Two: Pour the mixture through a large, fine mesh strainer or cheesecloth to separate the curds from the whey.* Make sure that the curds have drained thoroughly before transferring them to a glass bowl. Season with salt, to taste.
*Note: There are lots of different uses for whey, so don’t throw it out. Try adding it to your smoothies or juices, or you can even use it as a brine to tenderize meats.