One of the perks of this column is the occasional invitation to judge culinary events.
I’ve had an interesting mix so far including the Lima Bean Festival, high school culinary teams, and the San Diego Wine & Food Festival. My first out-of-state invitation happened recently when I was invited to be a judge at the Asparagus Festival in Empire, Mich.
For those of you not familiar with Empire, it’s located in the picturesque northwest corner of Michigan and is home to the majestic Sleeping Bear Dunes. While cherries and vineyards are the most abundant crops in the area, asparagus is also grown and is celebrated in an annual festival.
Tasting more than 30 asparagus dishes was a treat as the variety of the recipes kept things interesting. The winning dish was called “speared spears” and was a panko and rock salt crusted fried asparagus spear on a skewer and it was delicious. Other standouts at the festival included asparagus bratwurst from a local market in Empire and the asparagus beer from Right Brain Brewery in Traverse City.
The festival, it its 10th year, is one of those that is small enough to retain its charm and yet full of world class food and drink from growers, brewers, wineries, and local markets who have tapped into the foodie culture and are transforming Northwest Michigan into a culinary destination. Mario Batali summers in the area which has given it even more cache among the food set.
My first experience with fresh asparagus was when I was a college student in Michigan. My roommate Jim Cox, came from the Paw Paw region of West Michigan where his family had an asparagus farm. Jim would show up at the house we shared just off campus with buckets of it. Anything that fresh has got to be good so I dove in and never looked back.
Of course, California is also a huge producer of asparagus. Asparagus is a perennial crop that is normally harvested once per year over an eight- to 12-week period. The main harvest season is in the spring, but some may be cut in the fall (September and October). Asparagus may be harvested from January to early April in the southern desert valleys, from late February through May in the Delta and the San Joaquin Valley, and from March to mid-June on the Central Coast. So basically, it’s a year-round crop here, giving chefs easy access.
When I arrived back in Encinitas, I put some calls out to some local chef and restaurant owner friends to find out what they were doing with fresh California asparagus. First up were the guys from Fish 101 who offer a nice side of asparagus with their fish plates. They grill their asparagus with olive oil, kosher salt and black pepper, then they finish it with a drizzle of white truffle oil, shaved asiago cheese and Maldon sea salt. It’s a very nice way to do it up and something I order every time at Fish 101.
Firefly Grill & Wine Bar does a similar grilled treatment that they serve as a side with the steak dishes on their menu. I asked owner Jim Barrosso what kind of wine he suggests with asparagus. “It’s very difficult pairing wine with asparagus. I usually try to pair with the main part of the dish. Stay away from the delicate aromatic whites like Viognier or Riesling. It can stand up to more robust reds like the ones you would serve with steak. Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot or Syrah would be perfect fits.” Nice tips Jim.
Chef Kaitlin Ramos from Old Mission San Luis Rey in Oceanside has some creative uses for asparagus. Currently, she is making Asparagus Ravioli with Crimini Mushrooms & Brown Butter Sauce. She then gets very resourceful, using the woody stems that are scrap to make asparagus soup. She also likes to throw roasted asparagus onto her salads.
I also noticed Craftsman New American Tavern getting creative with shaved asparagus cakes served with their Crispy Duck Confit with sweet corn risotto. And speaking of risotto, I’ve always been a fan of making a classic risotto and substituting chopped asparagus for peas. It just gives it a little more texture.
To learn more about unique and delicious asparagus, go to asparagus.org.