Once prized as an aphrodisiac, asparagus is still a valued crop. A harbinger of spring that is bountiful along the Lower Peninsula’s Lake Michigan shore, asparagus offers one of the first fresh tastes of the state’s diverse bounty of fruits and vegetables. A powerhouse in terms of nutrients, the green stalks also help the bottom line. Last year, Michigan asparagus production was valued at more than $23.2 million.
“We are No. 1 in asparagus acreage and tied with Washington State in production,” says John Bakker, executive director of the Michigan Asparagus Advisory Board. “Last year, Michigan produced 22.5 million pounds of asparagus, and all of that was hand harvested.” That’s no easy job given that asparagus grows one-half inch an hour once the weather turns, and each plant typically yields three harvests.
“Asparagus likes well-drained, sandy soil, which is why it grows mostly near the lake,” says Ronald Goldy, a senior extension educator with Michigan State University. “Oceana County around Shelby and Hart grows the most, but Southwest Michigan, including Berrien and Van Buren counties, also produces a lot.”
Because it is picked by hand and snapped instead of cut at a length between eight to 10 inches, Michigan asparagus is more tender, eliminating the need to peel the stalks. “No one likes to peel,” says Goldy.
Farm Fresh is Best
While imported asparagus is available almost year-round at grocery stores, it tastes best in the spring, bought fresh from local farmers. Asparagus is versatile, and easily prepared by boiling, steaming, roasting, grilling and sautéing. Like many vegetables, grilling and roasting bring out the sweetness of asparagus, while steaming and boiling help retain its natural flavor.
As for the health benefits, asparagus, a member of the lily family, is a great source of folic acid, potassium, fiber and vitamins A and C. It is high in fiber and low in sodium and calories (at least until you cover it with Hollandaise sauce or dip it in butter).
Asparagus and Drink Pairings
Speaking of Hollandaise, a rich French sauce based on butter and egg yolks, Greg Tasker, the assistant manager at Verterra Winery in the Leelanau Peninsula, says that pairing asparagus and wine is always somewhat “iffy” but dressing the spears with Hollandaise or something “cheesy” helps with wine matchings. An uncorked and unoaked pinot grigio or pinot blanc work well, he says.
“The main rule is to avoid heavy tannins or oaked wines,” he advises, noting the unoaked varieties take away some of the vegetable’s pungency. “A dry, sparkly wine should also go well.”
“It’s easier to pair asparagus with beer than wine,” says Fred Bueltmann, author of the “Beervangelist’s Guide to the Galaxy: A Philosophy of Food & Drink,” a cookbook and craft beer guide addressing that very issue. Saisons work well, says Bueltmann, formerly a partner at New Holland Brewing Company, about the summertime farmhouse ales originating in Wallonia region of Belgium where French is the main language.
Or, you can have your asparagus and drink it, too, with a glass of Odd Fox Wine from Fox Barn Winery. The Shelby winemaker produces a limited quantity in time for the annual Asparagus Festival in Oceana County.