Farm to Fork means Eating in Season

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by Nick Benninger | May 2024

It’s a culinary crime buying out of season asparagus! 

The winter was long. Squash is now a distant memory of fall, and last season’s beets laden with sugary sweet flavours have turned into earthy umami. Greenhouse greens are starting to make a peppery appearance at farmers markets to brighten the local palate. 

To the rescue, bursting through the crust of the spring ground, appears the all-mighty and undisputed champion of spring’s early harvest – asparagus! And to the winter-worn farm gate visitor, asparagus is truly a culinary hero.

Much like that blog opening, I’ve been known to be dramatic, and when it comes to certain ingredients I really lean into that reputation. Local asparagus may just be the most celebrated ingredient for such a dramatic chef. 

For the last 20 some odd years, I have, with stalwart consistency, refused to consume out-of-season asparagus. In fact, nearly all the asparagus I’ve gobbled down with enthusiasm in that time has almost exclusively come from the same farm, and the same asparagus plot. Somewhere along Snyders Flats Road in Bloomingdale lies the absolute perfect place to grow asparagus, under the watchful care of the Stevanus Family. Two generations of Stevanus have now kept my spring fling in full flame; first Dale and Linda, and now Aaron and Anne who have taken over Stevanus Family Farm. 

The Stevanus family - Aaron, Issac, Hannah and Anne -  posing with Chef Nick in front of the river that runs past their farm in Bloomingdale.
Me and the Stevanus family: Aaron, Isaac, Anne and Hannah (Photo: Farm to Fork)

This year, I was lucky enough to have my first taste of asparagus directly from the earth. I was on hand with Aaron Stevanus as he surveyed the field, while his children Hannah and Isaac played nearby and wife Anne prepped the market store. Aaron told me that as usual they are at the mercy of the weather; a hot day will see several pounds, even into the hundreds, of asparagus pop up in an instant, and a cooler one like the day I’d arrived would see the patch slow down yielding only a few pounds. Aaron was happy to show me how he picks the daily harvest; he picks completely by hand and as such welcomed the extra help, stooping, cutting, counting, and crab-walking our way through the field so as not to trample the tender green spikes. 

While I’ve been known to advocate for supporting local farmers for all kinds of reasons, some of higher moral importance than others, when it comes to my fascination for asparagus it’s simply about quality. 

I’ve often said when trying to convince would-be food lovers as to why sourcing local trumps the convenience grocery chains can offer, that certain foods make the message easier to digest than others. Melons were a real eureka moment for me as their musk, still fueled by the warmth they contained from the summer sun, engulfed me. Lettuce, garlic, and of course corn are a different class of quality when sourced locally and in season. I put asparagus at the top of that list, and I would argue that limiting yourself to only enjoying it during its short season makes it even more special, much like corn on the cob that bookends the latter part of the harvest season. 

With that in mind, my first taste of asparagus will almost always be crunching down on a raw spear or two. Taking in that rich, sweet grassy flavour with a slight perfume of the season that is hard to articulate, other than to say asparagus tastes like spring! 

With a vegetable of this stature, I tend to approach its preparation with much respect, honouring the cliché of letting the ingredients shine. To that end, I wanted to create a dish that would not only give space on the plate to let asparagus just be asparagus, I’d strive to provide some supporting cast that would highlight the freshness of this particular handful. While later on in the season I will grill, roast or sauté asparagus, the purest way to present “sparrows grass” as it’s known to some, is to simply steam it, and quickly chill it, serving it cold. This showcases its sweetness and crisp but simultaneously supple texture. Sour cream provides the blank slate, brown butter enhances the sweetness and adding a nutty layer, such as toasted sesame seeds, doubles down on the nutty aspect while adding some texture. A little lemon zest for brightness and more of that undeniable spring feeling – chives because my garden is currently teeming with them and they work perfectly here! And finally – a generous mound of finely grated three-year-old gouda from Mountainoak Cheese in New Hamburg. 

While a good cook will often exclaim that the dish in front of them is the best dish they’ve ever made, I do genuinely think that may be true in this case. I am not sure I’ve ever made a dish that better represented the way I worship asparagus, allowing it to be the star while providing enough interest and complexity of ingredients to make it more than just a simple presentation of perfectly farmed goods. A real marriage of chef, farmer, and the shared passion for providing experiences through the lens of their trades. 

Try the recipe below and let me know how it turns out by sharing your finished dish and tagging me @farmtofablechef on Instagram. The season is short, so savour with haste, while also taking the time to smell the unmistakably spring air. 

To further enhance this dish, enjoy it with a glass of The Perth Farmhouse White from The Perth Farmhouse located on the border of Waterloo Region. Their unique blend of Frontenac Gris, Frontenac Blanc, Chardonnay, and Muscat Ottonel is the perfect compliment to asparagus, boasting aromas and flavours of stone fruit, citrus, and green apple skins, with a hint of lime. 

Stevanus Farm to Fork Asparagus

This is a very simple recipe, however the few steps that are taken need to be executed with precision for this simple dish to sing, so make sure to pay attention. Don’t rush, and source the best ingredients possible choosing local where you can. You and your dinner companions will appreciate the efforts taken and fall in love with this pure presentation of asparagus.  

Ingredients  

  • 1 bunch asparagus trimmed and washed  
  • ½ cup sour cream  
  • ¼ cup unsalted butter  
  • 1 lemon  
  • 1 tablespoon sesame seeds toasted  
  • 1 tablespoon finely chopped chives  
  • 1 cup finely grated 3-year-old gouda from Mountainoak Cheese  
  • Sea Salt  

Instructions  

  1. Start a large pot of salted water to boil, while waiting for the water to boil, assemble a bowl of cold water and plenty of ice to shock the asparagus locking in the colour and texture once cooked. I peeled the ends of my asparagus, as a throwback to my fine dining days, and because I felt fancy, it’s certainly not needed, but it’s a nice step and looks really nice so I say go for it. Once the water is at a full boil, carefully add the asparagus, stirring them to ensure even heat distribution. We want the asparagus cooked through, but not limp, so usually this will take around 2 minutes, but dont be afraid to pull one out and test it to see if its ready. Once cooked remove from the water and immediately place it into the ice bath, once again mixing it to ensure even distribution and a rapid cool down. Allow the asparagus to sit in the ice bath for a few minutes ensuring it is fully cooled, then remove to a strainer and pat dry with paper towel and set aside.  
  1. Make the brown butter, this is easy and something to remember for future recipes, brown butter is of the gods and makes most things better. Simply place butter into a heavy bottomed saucepan, put on medium heat, add salt to taste, and cook slowly stirring constantly and watching carefully not to over cook. We are looking for somewhere between golden and chestnut brown colour, and the smell of maple roasted hazelnuts, that’s when you know you’ve nailed it. Remove from the heat, and if you are worried you may have gone slightly too far, pour it into a dish to stop cooking and begin cooling even quicker. Set aside but keep it warm.  
  1. Time to assemble the plate. Start by making a nice bed of sour cream using the back of a spoon to create  a nest, we will build the dish up from this foundation. Next gently spoon the brown butter over the sour cream and around the outside of the plate, then sprinkle the chives, lemon zest and toasted sesame seeds. Not make a nice pile of the steamed asparagus, lining it up toe to toe and head to head, and finely top with the finely grated gouda and some sea salt to finish.
a plate of freshly prepared asparagus. The asparagus is placed on a circle of sour cream, and topped with shaved cheese and a brown butter glaze.
Stevanus Farm to Fork Asparagus (Photo: Nick Benninger)
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