Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Sunday Morning With The Asparaguru

A version of this article appeared in The Financial Mirror issue of February 22-28, 2012. Since it's currently wild asparagus season, I thought I'd share it with you.

Therein hides the wild asparagus...
Evading thorny situations are not my specialty. That obviously came to the fore one random overcast and cold Sunday morning in the fields near the village of Agrokipia, only twenty-five minutes outside of Nicosia and right off the single-lane road that meanders into the Pitsilia region immediately east of Mount Olympus. Decked in black sweatpants, a warm fleece jacket and running shoes, my hands protected by cushiony and expensive goalkeeping gloves, I repeatedly dug a strong tree branch into the bundle of spines that provides shelter to agrelia, the island’s wild asparagus. The goal seemed simple—to create enough room through the prickly brush to handpick the few asparagus shoots that might be tucked in the ground. In reality, though, wild asparagus picking is a grueling game that requires a combination of patience, good eyesight, dexterity, tolerance for pain and a willingness to get down and dirty. It is somewhat like going to protracted war with nature.

In retrospect, it was quite wise to bring along my friend Marios’s mother-in-law and her years of picking experience to show us the ropes. First off, Marios and I had to dispel any preconceived notion we had regarding what a wild asparagus plant looks like. The grayish-green bush is a labyrinth of branches, each jutting out dozens of small and very sharp thorns, that hides the vegetable from plain eyesight. Without proper assistance, neophytes would be hard-pressed to recognize the correct plant. Furthermore, the only way to reach the asparagus—if in fact there are any visible ones under that particular plant—is to push aside the protrusions with any sort of robust stick-like instrument and open a gap large enough to move in with your arm and carefully pull the shoots out. On the way in, it is likewise prudent to mind the spines (heavy-duty gardening gloves help) and either dig one’s feet deep into the ground for added stability or kneel down for greater extension. To make things even trickier, the vegetable is often hard to spot since it is so well camouflaged by all the other branches nearby. Given all these complications, it is not surprising to find wild asparagus at local supermarkets selling for about six Euros for a rather meager bunch.

Once we were done searching under one bush, we would move on to the next, each time praying to hit the mother lode, quickly fill up our white bucket and shorten our somewhat fatiguing outing. Little by little, our collection of wild asparagus—some short like a thimble, others as long as a grown man’s arm—became a semi-respectable batch. I must admit that most of it was tracked down by our astute aspara-guru, Marios and I adding only a handful of shoots to the gatherings. After a couple hours scavenging through the soggy fields, our feet and pants’ hemlines crusted with mud courtesy of the rainiest Cypriot winter in years, we called it a day and sped back to Nicosia to cut, wash and divide our spoils. 

Cleaning wild asparagus is a relatively simple task when compared to the arduous gathering process. However, what is most frustrating is realizing that only about forty percent of the batch is actually edible. To clean, snap the stem into roughly four centimeter pieces as you work your way down from the pointy tip, discarding whatever is left once it simply bends or no longer breaks off cleanly. Then, run the salvaged asparagus under cold water and pat dry.  After all that work, we had only collected enough to serve as a side dish for four, making me doubt whether it was worth our time to hit the trenches and scour the fields in search of the vegetable in the first place. 

The yummy end product
Cypriot preparation methods usually consist of tossing the asparagus with a few lightly beaten eggs and some olive oil in a sizzling pan. To soften its natural bitterness, my mother-in-law suggested briefly blanching the vegetable before sautéing for a few minutes and then adding the eggs, salt and ground black pepper. Other people prefer coating the pieces in olive oil before jacking up the heat on the stove-top, stirring until the asparagus turn a bright green and then mixing in the remaining ingredients. Once at home, I tried both techniques and the results were rather similar, the latter being just a bit oilier than the former probably as a result of my unsteady hand when pouring the oil. In my position as daily apron-wearer of the household, I believe the key is to not overcook the shoots so that they remain crunchy and hold back on the number of eggs to allow the umami-packed vegetable to shine through. A good rule of thumb is to use two eggs for each cup of asparagus.  

Overall, my experiment cooking the asparagus was quite successful. The pieces turned a beautiful vibrant green and remained firm to the bite. They also kept their tanginess and just a hint of bitterness that was softened nicely by the eggs’ creaminess. If matching with wine, I believe it would have been perfect alongside a chilled glass of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, Santorini Assyrtiko (unoaked) or one of Cyprus’s wonderful rosés. 

In the end, did it make sense to hit the countryside early on a gloomy Sunday morning to learn how to pick wild asparagus? I would say yes since there is always something quite satisfying about harvesting your own vegetables, fruits and herbs. If in trained hands, the food usually tastes better as each bite serves as a well-earned reward for standing up to all kinds of hardships—pricks, sludge, itchy eyes and the eventual sore back. So rest assured, we will be back next month to comb the wet land for bladder campion, thyme and any other wild edible greens available to foolish local adventurers like ourselves.

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