Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Preserving Floyd: Asparagus 2 Ways

Michael put in our asparagus bed this year.  It was much more complicated then I thought it would be.  Previously I'd inherited asparagus beds that came with other houses, or lived near a particularly bountiful patch of wild asparagus and foraged, or received bagfuls from friends with overproducing beds.  After double digging a two foot deep trench, hilling the bottom, placing the asparagus crowns, screening the soil back over the crowns, and doing it all in between downpours, we finally have our own asparagus bed!  Now we only have to wait two years for our first harvest.

In the meantime we buy in what we need to preserve.
This is 17 pounds of "B" grade asparagus from Mike Burton's beds.  What makes it "B" is that it's not cosmetically beautiful like "A" grade asparagus.  It's buds are a little shaggy, there's inconsistency in the diameter of the stalks, there's a slight bit more woodiness to the bottoms of the stalks.  Is it tasty and nutritious?  It sure is!  And it's less than half the price of the pretty "A" grade!  Since the majority of this is going to be canned as soup pretty isn't an issue.  The bonus is, there are always enough stalks verging on "A" grade in there that I can make a few jars of pickled asparagus as well.

The first step is to snap off the woody parts and separate out the pretty stalks.  Take a stalk of asparagus and hold an end in each hand.  Start to bend it.  The stalk will snap just above the spot at the base where the woodiness ends.  If the bud on that stalk is tight and smooth put it in the pretty pile.  If it's shaggy, put it in the soup pile.

I made the pickled asparagus first because there's a lot of trimming involved to get the stalks to fit nicely into the jars.  Rather than waste those trimmings by throwing them out, I save them for making the soup.  To trim the asparagus to the correct size, which should be 1/2 inch below the top of the jar, stick one in the jar bud down and cut the stalk to the correct length.  Then lay that stalk down on your cutting board and stick a piece of masking tape to the board at either end of the stalk.
Now you can line several stalks up at once and cut them to size.  My friend Joel turned me on to this trick.  Except he used permanent marker on his cutting board.  His wife, Dana, was not pleased.  Huh.  Learn from the experience of others, I always say!

Next I put the prepared spears into jars to see how many jars I would need.  I didn't pack the jars, I just needed an estimate.  A mix of spices will be put in each jar before the asparagus and it helps to have an idea of how many jars to prepare.  I used 4 pint jars.

Into each jar I put 1 sliced clove of garlic, 1 shallot scape (optional, I had them and they looked pretty in there), 3 allspice berries, 6 black peppercorns, 4 coriander seeds, a pinch of ground mace (or nutmeg), 1 pequin pepper.  You'll also need several long strips of lemon zest later.
Pickling spice is a matter of personal taste.  There are tons of pickling spice combinations out there if you search them.  It use to panic me but now I tend to use a couple as guides while I use what I have in my spice rack.  They're very flexible.  Note somewhere what you used so if you create a particularly good blend you can go back to it.

In a non-reactive pot combine 3 cups of vinegar (your choice of type but I would stay away from red wine just because of the color), 3 cups of water, 3 teaspoons of kosher or pickling salt (stay away from iodized table salt, it will discolor your pickle in bad ways), and 2 1/2 tablespoons of sugar.  Bring to a boil and then turn down but keep hot. This is your pickling brine.

While the brine is heating, pack the raw asparagus, tips down, into your jars.  Pack the jars firmly.  Placing the stalks tip down protects them when pulling the finished spears from the jar later.  Take one of those long lemon zest strips and wrap it around the asparagus, working it about halfway down into the jar.  I use a wooden skewer to get it in there.
Or you can be less obsessive and just wiggle it in anywhere.

Pour the hot brine into the jars leaving 1/2 inch of head space.  Wipe the rims and apply the lids.  Process in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes (that's 12 minutes for Floyd).

When cool, wash and label the jars.  Allow the pickled asparagus to mature at least three weeks before eating.

Next up was asparagus soup.  This is actually cream of asparagus soup but you don't want to add the dairy until you're actually heating the soup to eat.  Dairy doesn't process well.  Asparagus is a low acid food and since we're not adding any acid like we did with the pickle, the soup will be pressure canned.  Figure on 2 lbs of asparagus per quart of finished soup.  After cleaning, trimming, and separating out the pickling stalks I had about 14 pounds left for soup.

Snap the buds off the asparagus spears and save them in a bowl.  Snap the rest of the stalk into pieces.

I diced up 2 verging-on-large onions and dumped them into a large pot with about a cup of water.  Instead of softening the onions in butter or oil, I steamed them because I like to keep fat down to a minimum when pressure canning.  I also added about a quarter cup of shitake dust.  I love shitake dust.  Just pulverize dried shitake mushrooms in a little coffee grinder.  Add a bit to soups, stews, gravies, and you'll be amazed!  You can do it with any dried mushrooms, I happened to have shitakes.  Asian fish sauce is also a great addition here instead of the dust.  If you don't have either, don't worry.  They're nice but optional.

When the onion was softened I threw in the pile of snapped asparagus stalks, stirred to mix with the onion and allowed to soften a bit.  Then I added enough chicken stock to cover it all.  You can use any stock you have on hand; chicken, beef, vegetable, or just straight water.  Simmer until the asparagus stalks are very tender.

When the stalks are tender, drain the liquid off the asparagus through a sieve and into a large bowl or another pot.  Set aside the drained stalks.  Clean your original pot and return the liquid to it.

Puree the stalks in a food processor until smooth.  You may have to add in a little of the stock.  Force this puree through a food mill or sieve to remove any fibrous bits.  Return the sieved puree to the pot with the stock.  Bring the soup back up to a simmer, taste for salt and pepper, and adjust seasonings.  Keep hot.

Divide the reserved asparagus buds evenly between the jars.
Ladle the hot soup into each jar leaving a generous 1 inch of head space.  Wipe rims and apply lids.  Process in the pressure canner for 40 minutes for quarts at 10 pounds of pressure.  That's 12 pounds of pressure in Floyd.  When the time is up, remove the pressure canner from the heat and allow the pressure to zero out.  Do not open the canner or rush the release of pressure.  Allow it to do it on it's own.  When the gauge has returned to zero remove the jars and allow to cool and sit undisturbed for 24 hours.  The jars will continue bubbling and remain hot for quite awhile.  Wash and label when cool.

When you're ready to eat the soup, pour a quart into a pot and bring to a gentle boil for 20 minutes (that's a safety precaution).  Reduce the heat and add at least a half a cup of cream, half and half, or milk, or more to taste.  Yogurt would be good too.  And maybe a dollop of sour cream or cream fraiche for garnish.


  1. I was hoping you'd post something minty this month!

  2. I know, I missed the Spice Rack Challenge deadline. We've been busy catching up on getting the crops in and preserving what's mature and ripe now and that's superceded the challenge in importance. I wish I could blog about everything I've preserved or cooked over the last few weeks! However, something minty this way comes as the heat and need for refreshment increases!