In season: purple asparagus

There aren’t many perennial vegetables in a climate like metro Atlanta’s. Jerusalem artichokes grow abundantly. Globe artichokes can be hit or miss. Greens like sorrel and chicory can do well.

And then there’s asparagus. Plant a patch, keep it weeded and in about three years’ time, the plants will start offering a harvestable crop and keep on doing so, as long as the crop is kept tended.

On her farm in the north Walton County community of Bethlehem, Vicky Fry tends a 600-foot row of asparagus, a patch she’s been tending for about the past 10 years. Unlike most other vegetables which are annuals, grown for one year and then pulled up for the season, asparagus is a perennial plant, sending up its tender shoots each spring and then growing on through the summer before dying down in the fall. A good patch may continue to produce shoots for over 20 years, and the harvest season lasts about 8 weeks.

Most of Fry’s bed is Jersey Knight, a vigorous green variety known for its succulent stalks. She also grows a variety called Purple Passion. Its tender burgundy spears are thought to be sweeter than other varieties. And just recently she added 200 feet of Purple Pacific, a variety that produces especially large spears. “It will be two more years before we get the full eight-week production out of that variety.”

Yes, asparagus comes in colors other than green. Some people are familiar with white asparagus, specially grown by covering the stalks in some way to keep sunlight from reaching them. They don’t generate chlorophyll so they don’t turn green.

Purple asparagus grows just like green asparagus, no special conditions required. The skin is purple and the inside is green. The purple color doesn’t hold when the spears are cooked, so to enjoy the contrast of the purple exterior and green interior, they have to be used raw. As for whether the spears are sweeter or less bitter than the green ones, Fry says, “I always munch on a couple of spears while harvesting, and the purple are a little sweeter and more tender than the green even though the purple are larger.”

Since in mid-April, Fry has been harvesting asparagus spears. Depending on the weather, she may have to harvest twice a day to keep up with the growth. Left just a few hours too long, the spears turn into long lanky stems not suitable for eating.

Fry says her patch yields about 10 pounds a day. She sells her asparagus as well as other produce on Saturday mornings at the Sandy Springs and Suwanee farmers markets, and on Tuesday mornings at the Winder Crossfit on Loganville Highway in Winder and on Wednesday mornings at the Cowart Family YMCA on Ashford-Dunwoody Road.

The farm is also offering “Harvest Boxes.” Similar to a community-supported agriculture box in that each box will contain a sampling of seven to 10 produce items from that week’s harvest, these are available without a subscription or prepayment. They’re $30 and can be picked up at any of the market locations.

Aside from keeping the asparagus patch weeded, there’s not too much needed to keep the patch going throughout the year. But in the spring, when the spears start coming up, it’s a twice daily job to keep up with the harvest.

Purple Asparagus Salad

1/4 small red onion, thinly sliced

1 1/2 pounds purple asparagus, ends trimmed, cut on the diagonal into 1-inch pieces

1/4 cup chopped fresh mint leaves

1/4 cup olive oil

2 tablespoons red wine vinegar

2 tablespoons honey mustard

Salt

1/2 cup shaved Parmesan

1 cup diced strawberries

Aleppo pepper

In a small bowl, cover onion slices with cold water and let sit until ready to use.

Put cut asparagus in a microwave-proof container and rinse, then drain most of the water. Cover with waxed paper and microwave on high power for 30 seconds to 3 minutes. The longer the asparagus is microwaved, the more tender it will be and the more color the purple asparagus will lose. Remove from microwave and pat dry, then arrange on serving platter and allow to cool.

When asparagus has cooled, drain onion slices and sprinkle over asparagus. Sprinkle with mint. Can be made up to one hour ahead of time, covered and refrigerated.

Make vinaigrette: in a screw-top jar, combine olive oil, vinegar and mustard. Cover and shake vigorously. Season to taste.

When ready to serve, drizzle vinaigrette over salad and sprinkle with shaved Parmesan. Add strawberries and dust with Aleppo pepper. Serve immediately. Serves: 6

Per serving: 138 calories (percent of calories from fat, 70), 5 grams protein, 6 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams fiber, 11 grams fat (2 grams saturated), 5 milligrams cholesterol, 184 milligrams sodium.

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