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Spears Aplenty : Prices are low at this time of the year, and fresh-from-the-field stalks are available.


Asparagus prices have once again crept down to palatable levels as an abundant spring harvest continues to make its way to the marketplace.

It's an annual occurrence, this drop in price, albeit a short-lived one.

For about three months out of the year, asparagus is in sufficient quantity to bring down wholesale costs and, with them, retail prices.

Currently you will find the verdant spears at about $1.59 to $1.69 per pound. Not bad considering off-season prices can hover around $4 or $5 a pound.

A large percentage of the springtime harvest is produced here in the Golden State, said Clarence Wittmer of the California Asparagus Growers Assn. The state's coastal region and the delta area in Northern California are where much of the nation's supply of asparagus is grown.

You won't, however, find any commercial growers in Ventura County because of the plant's growing habits. Although the plants remain productive for many years, actual harvesting is but a fleeting moment in comparison to other vegetables that are better suited to the year-round harvesting potential in Ventura County.

"It's a matter of dollars and cents," said Bob Brendler, a retired Ventura County farm adviser. "We have a special climate here that allows us to grow and harvest certain crops--such as celery--year-round. Not many other areas have that ability."

Hence, local growers have forsaken asparagus for crops that offer a greater return on their investment.

Thanks to a few growers in neighboring counties, though, local aficionados can sate their appetites with fresh-from-the-field asparagus, available at Ventura County farmers' markets.

"I'll continue harvesting for about another two months," said Santa Maria grower Mike Melendez, who attends Ventura County's Saturday and Wednesday markets.

After the brief harvest period, the spears--which grow rapidly--will be allowed to "fern out" for nine months, Melendez said. The lull is required, he said, and allows the plant to replenish itself.

Kay and Phil Green raise about 100 acres of asparagus in Lompoc and attend Ventura's Saturday market and Thousand Oaks' Wednesday bazaar. A favorable climate allows the Greens to continue harvesting well past the date when other California growers are through.

"We generally cut for about 10 months starting in January," Kay Green said.

Harvesting by hand, workers sink a sharp blade just beneath the surface and slice the spears off at their root crown.

"The stalks that you see are only about 4 days old," Green said. "They pop up very fast." A common consumer misconception, she said, is thinking that the thicker the spear, the more mature it must be. Not so.

"The stalks come up the diameter that they are," she said. Thinner spears are produced by younger plants, thicker spears by older plants.

The thinner stalks are more tender than the thicker version, "but it's all personal preference and what they will be used for," said Melendez.

Preparing asparagus can sometimes prove daunting. There's the fibrous stalk to sufficiently soften without overcooking the more tender tip.

A Green hint: Lop off half an inch from the bottom and peel off the more fibrous portion of the skin. That should be sufficient when steaming or boiling the fatter version.

"For salads, get the skinny ones," Melendez said. "You don't have to do anything to those, just eat 'em fresh."

Maybe the easiest way to enjoy fresh asparagus is to let a dab of sweet butter melt over the top and splash on some lemon juice.

Question: Boil, steam or microwave?

"I don't recommend the microwave at all," Green cautioned. "It's too hard to cook perfectly." Green's suggested method combines boiling and steaming. Use small to medium-size spears, lay them flat in a baking dish and pour just enough boiling water to submerge them. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and let sit for 15 minutes. That's it. No added cooking time is needed, she said. "I promise it works. You'll never overcook the spears and they will be wonderfully tender."

When shopping for fresh asparagus, fanciers should choose firm, stick-straight stalks with a uniform green color, Melendez said. A telltale sign of not-so-fresh asparagus, he said, is a yellow crown at the bottom. "It's probably a week or more since it was harvested," he said.

To keep asparagus fresh and moist in the fridge, stand the stalks straight in about two inches of water. "Or you can wrap the ends in wet paper towels," Green said.

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