With the last of the winter harvest behind us and the eggplants and capsicums still a way off, spring is a surprisingly lean time in the vegie patch. But any shortage in the annual beds is more than made up for by the discovery of the first pale spears of asparagus emerging from the earth.
Along with the first lambs, asparagus – the vegie garden's king of spring – heralds the change of season. And once there is enough warmth and humidity in the air, it goes crazy, with spears literally growing overnight.
What's more, it has been incredibly easy to grow. Other than tossing it a load of old chook manure at the end of the harvest season, all I do is pick it. So far we've had no pests, no disease. In fact, my only complaint is that it's so prolific it's hard to keep up with. Asparagus needs to be picked before it starts to fern; if left to grow naturally those little bumps at the top of the spear develop into fronds. Which pretty much means asparagus is on the menu every night.
Because asparagus is a perennial – and a long-lived one at that – you need to dedicate a permanent bed and prepare it well with lots of organic matter. The cheapest way to plant asparagus is by seed, but in that case you will need to wait two or three years before harvesting to allow a strong root system to develop. Alternatively, you could splurge on some two-year-old crowns, in which case you may forego just one season of harvesting before launching into a mouthwatering array of recipes: lightly steamed asparagus tossed through pasta with olive oil and parmesan; asparagus spears dipped in a soft-boiled egg; fresh-picked and raw in salad and as crudités; or go continental and top a pile of asparagus with a poached egg and Hollandaise sauce. My all-time favourite, though, is individual spears wrapped in thin slices of pancetta, chargrilled and served with a wedge of lemon. After months of cabbage and cauliflower, this simple dish signifies a return to barbecue season, and is utterly delicious.
Fortunately, asparagus' close friendship with eggs is well timed, because with the warmer weather, the hens have come back on the lay and we are collecting eight or nine eggs a day. Even with the asparagus and egg combo we come up with most nights (plus the odd four-egg cake), we are nowhere near eating our way through the surplus.
So Mark and the kids have started a little business venture, making up a label to sell the excess eggs through the local bakery. It's very sweet, but if I could just convince them to go into asparagus quiche production, we'd really be in business.