ONE DIMENSION of my friendship with Alexandra Stafford is a years-long ongoing barter. She shares her cooking expertise with me and my extended family, and I give Ali and her husband gardening advice. It’s a pretty sweet deal, and so the other day Ali, creator of the indispensable alexandracooks.com website, and I got to swapping asparagus wisdoms, because ’tis the season.
On her website, or her extremely popular Instagram account @AlexandraCooks, her YouTube channel, and of course in her online cooking classes, Ali Stafford is always teaching. It could be a technique that provides the aha we need to unlock the secret to a recipe, or how to use the best of-the-moment recipe ingredients in inspired combinations, especially vegetables and herbs. And if you haven’t tried her no-knead bread recipe that’s the foundation of her cookbook, “Bread Toast Crumbs,” well, you need to.
Learn ways to dress up roasted asparagus, an asparagus risotto recipe and a raw asparagus salad, too, among other delicious ideas, and even how to grow it. The hardest thing about that: the wait, until it’s ready for its first harvest.
Plus: Enter to win a copy of the book by commenting at the bottom of the page.
Read along as you listen to the May 17, 2021 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on Apple Podcasts (iTunes) or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
ali on my sister’s podcast this week, too
MY SISTER MARION TEACHES memoir-writing, and also has a podcast, and guess who her guest was this week? Alexandra Stafford, on the subject of becoming a food writer, and the stories we all have to tell that derive from our experiences with food. Read it or listen to it at this link.
asparagus: growing, cooking, eating, with ali stafford
Margaret Roach: Hi, Ali. You’re baking some bread over there?
Alexandra Stafford: Always [laughter].
Margaret: I know. You’ve got my whole family baking bread [laughter].
Ali: It’s so fun. It’s so nice to hear. I love seeing all of your niece’s creations and your sister’s and brother-in-law’s. It’s so fun.
Margaret: Well, as I mentioned in the introduction, you’ve been a constant source of cooking wisdom for me. And then in this last year, this crazy year, my family, in all our different houses, I had bought every one your virtual cooking classes during the pandemic, and we’d all meet up there and learn to cook. And then we’d have our family’s sort of reunion on Zoom after and so forth. And wow, my brother-in-law’s baking your bread and making your recipes and my niece, whose diet not so long ago was college dorm food, I think [laughter].
Ali: Amazing. I love seeing hers, I think, in particular, the most. She’s so funny.
Margaret: Yeah, you’ve got to converts, so thank you. I’ll give a link to your classes, your whole cooking school that you’re doing virtually, and also let’s give away a copy of “Bread Toast Crumbs,” because it’s so great. So we’ll do that, too. So: Asparagus, has it been showing up at the farmer’s market?
Ali: It has. I went to the Schenectady Greenmarket on Sunday for the first time in ages. It actually made me sad thinking about how long it had been since I was there last, but it was a beautiful day, and I have to say it felt so alive. I mean, there were a ton of people out and the farmstands, I feel like they were teeming with asparagus. There were a lot of ramps, rhubarb, all the tender… the baby spinach, baby Swiss chard, baby kale. Just so much good stuff. It was so fun. I came home with two huge bags loaded with stuff.
Margaret: I think you already subscribe to a CSA probably, so boy oh boy, I bet you have a lot of vegetables in the fridge right now.
Ali: I do. My CSA doesn’t start until June, and then it goes… Yeah, this is my in-between season because if you do the winter season, I think you get your… It’s three 40-pound deliveries of root vegetables, and you get your last one in February. So I’ve been without a CSA coming in regularly for a few months now. So this was a real treat.
Margaret: Interesting. Well, I remember, I don’t know, a week or two ago—I’ve lost track of time as we all have this last 14, 15 months [laughter]—but I remember your sharing an anecdote about someone bringing you some fresh asparagus from his garden, and that you had never eaten raw asparagus before.
Ali: No. Yes, so it was one of your readers and he lived near me and he emailed me a few weeks ago saying you had done a newsletter, I think, telling people how to prepare their asparagus beds for… Something about weeding, I think, and getting them ready for the season. And he emailed me and said, “As promised, I’m going to bring you some of my asparagus.”
So he dropped off about a pound of asparagus, and it was one of those revelations that when you see something like that, just so fresh, it’s so almost impossible not to just taste it raw. But it’s not something I would experience in the grocery store.
So I made it right away—I had had my eye on this salad from Joshua McFadden’s “Six Seasons” cookbook [affiliate link] for a long time, but it’s a raw asparagus salad with toasted walnuts, breadcrumbs, Parmesan, olive oil, lemon, pepper flake. And it’s so good. It’s really addictive. It serves four, and Ben and I just polished it off, no problem.
Margaret: Ben being your husband, who’s the budding gardener.
Ali: Yes, exactly, yes. We’ve been thinking of you because he’s pulled out your book a lot, too. He does all the gardening. I really don’t take much part in it except for watering and stuff, but he’s started tomato seeds and he’s started a lot of lettuces in the basement, and they’re looking really good. So he’s almost ready to transplant them.
Margaret: When I saw you—I think it was on Instagram—and what’s one of the great things about… Well, there’s many great things about your Instagram, but one of them is that you do these little video things, especially in your Stories and so forth, and you just really cut to the heart of the technique thing.
And so if you said to me what you just said, “Joshua McFadden’s raw asparagus salad,” and you named the ingredients, I’m thinking I’m chopping up the asparagus crosswise, do you know what I mean? Because for a lot of things you would do that. You just have chunks. But that’s not [laughter].
Ali: No, you want to cut these as thinly as possible, and slicing them on the bias really helps with that and give you these kinds of long, angular shapes that are really nice for this purpose. It is a little tricky. I think I’ve heard from a couple of people since I posted that, that they have to work on their technique with cutting it thinly. I think as long as you cut it pretty thinly, it’s fine. In fact, I have tried making this when I’ve just shaved it with a peeler, and it’s actually too thin. So even if your slices are a little bit thicker than ideal, it will still be fine. So I just tell people not to worry and push on.
Margaret: Push on, yes. And it helps to have a sharp knife, too, which I think is one of the… A lot of us think—regular folks who aren’t professionals—a lot of us think we have poor knife skills, which maybe we do, and I probably do, but we also sometimes don’t care for our equipment as well as someone who’s in the business knows that you have to, because…
And it’s the same way if I as a gardener, I know when it’s the pruning shears that are out of shape, and when it’s me who’s doing the wrong thing. Do you know what I mean? I know what it’s meant to feel when it’s working.
Ali: So no, a sharp knife is super-helpful with this, because otherwise you’ll just basically end up really bruising the asparagus and cutting these not-so-pretty shapes.
Margaret: Yeah, so do you sometimes just roast asparagus, or what else do we do with asparagus? And being a gardener, of course, I know to eat it fresh, because some of it never makes its way into the house from the garden [laughter].
Ali: I’m sure. I feel like, honestly, as the season gets on, I get lazier and lazier, and I end up just roasting it at maybe 425 degrees with olive oil and salt. But I just pulled out my “Canal House Cooks Every Day” [affiliate link] for some more inspiration, and they have a recipe, very simple, 400 degrees, toss asparagus with olive oil and salt and pepper, roast it at 400 degrees for 20 to 25 minutes. Then out of the oven, shave it with either Parmesan or pecorino. And it’s a very classic preparation. And drizzle it with an aged balsamic, a syrupy balsamic. It’s so simple, but so delicious. I could eat the whole pan just like that. [The recipe.]
And if you don’t want to buy expensive aged balsamic, you can just take store-bought balsamic vinegar, a quarter-cup, put it in a little sauce pan, and simmer it until it’s reduced by about half or even maybe a little bit further, until it’s syrupy, and that will work just as well. But so simple and just a little bit different than roasting it with olive oil and salt and pepper.
And I often will just squeeze… I mean, the balsamic serves this purpose, but if I don’t do the balsamic thing, just squeeze some lemon, and that’s really delicious.
Margaret: Have you ever seen an ingredient called saba?
Ali: Yes I have. And I always forget what it is. It’s a grape must, or something with grapes. Similar to the reduced balsamic.
Margaret: It’s similar to what you just said would happen if you reduced the balsamic. It’s almost a thick and almost a syrupy, and it has that flavor also. And I never see it anywhere anymore. When I used to live in New York City, in some of the specialty markets they had it, and it was so delicious because it’s that thickened thing. The balsamic, it can get very watery. Anyway, total digression.
Ali: Joshua McFadden actually in his book has a recipe for roasted cabbage and he calls for drizzling it with saba out of the oven, and I never have it. So I do that trick, the reduced balsamic instead. But yeah, I’ve got to find some.
Margaret: Yeah, it’s good stuff. We’ll ferret out the source, we will, we will [laughter]. So one of the things I just do with it besides roasting it, what you said, and besides eating it raw in the garden, which I said, is sometimes… It looks nicer if you do it, if it’s for company or whatever, if you do it in a fluted, ceramic tart pan, but it could just be a baking dish, a regular-sized 9-by-whatever Pyrex type of baking dish. And I just lay the spears in and chop parsley over them, and scramble two eggs real quick—not scramble as in cook, but beat two eggs and pour that over. And then put Parmesan, grated Parmesan over it, and just put it in the oven and just bake it until it’s like… And it’s just a little bit of egg, you know what I mean? It’s just to hold it together. And it feels special, but it’s not special [laughter]. [Get the Asparagus Parmesan Bake recipe.]
Ali: Yeah, totally. I feel like egg is one of those things that’s just a good match for asparagus, for whatever reason, and in so many forms. It could be a poached egg, a fried egg, hard-boiled egg chopped up. Or as you said, almost quiche-like. It’s just they go together.
Margaret: So when you get it at the farmer’s market or whatever, and you bring it home, do you store it in the fridge? Everybody has their two cents about this.
Ali: So your reader, Richard, who dropped off the asparagus to me, he dropped it off in these two cups, with a little bit of water, so the spears were standing upright. And I feel like I’ve read about storing it like that over the years, and just never did it. And I find, I think also, my fridge is always so loaded that storing it in the fridge like that has always seemed like it would be a little bit precarious.
So I’ve just been storing it at… I stored his at room temperature. Of course I ate it almost immediately, so it wasn’t stored for that long. But some of the asparagus that I brought home from Sunday, from the farmer’s market, they’re still standing upright in their glass. I just put it in a Mason jar with a little bit of water. And I just started at room temperature and they’ve stored beautifully. Now that’s not a super-long time, but it’s a decent amount of time, and they don’t look as if they’re showing any signs of deterioration.
So I think if your kitchen is cool enough, you probably could just keep it at room temperature, and if you have space in your fridge, you could store in the fridge. And I’ve been reading in a few of my cookbooks, they have suggested that upright method, and then if you don’t want to do that, you could just wrap it in a damp cloth and then stick it in a bag and store it in your vegetable bin.
Margaret: Because of the tipping-over thing with the water vessel, I use a tall vessel, but I only put a little bit of water in the bottom, and I put it in the door of the fridge, do you know what I mean? Where a milk container or a pickle jar would go so, that it holds it in there so it doesn’t go flying in the rest of my very disorderly fridge.
Ali: No, that’s totally smart. And my kitties have been trying when… When I’ve had it at room temperature, my cats have been going after the jar, so getting it into the fridge would actually be ideal.
Margaret: Yeah, and I usually loosely put a plastic bag, a lightweight plastic bag over it or something, and that just makes it last extra-long. So any other inspiration food-wise for asparagus?
Ali: I have a few favorite recipes that I make every year. Mark Bittman has a risotto recipe [above] that’s really nice, especially if you love asparagus and you like things like risotto. You use the asparagus two ways. So you blanch the stalks for about 5 minutes until they’re pretty over-cooked. You set those aside and you eventually puree those. And then you blanch the tips, the really pretty part just for a minute, and set those aside. And then you end up stirring the puree into the risotto at the end, and then you fold in those beautiful little tips at the end as well.
And the original recipe, I think, either calls for chicken stalk or vegetable stalk. I use the water that I blanch the asparagus in for it. So it’s just a super-asparagus-y flavor. So again, Parmesan, some pepper and just really nice this time of year.
Margaret: I’d like that [laughter].
Ali: I mean, there’s so many good things. I sent you a picture of my focaccia gardenscape [above], which was very pretty, but that was not quite a success. I was wondering, I shaved the stalks and used that as the grass of the focaccia gardenscape and then kept the spears long, and I used some spring onions from the farmer’s market as well.
And I have shaved asparagus and put it over pizza dough, and then five minutes in the oven, it’s totally fine. But 25 minutes in the oven, it was a little… Some of it was great, like the little tips that got charred, tasted great, but everything else tasted a little stringy and a little burnt, and the top of the focaccia didn’t get totally cooked. So it was a fun experiment. I’ve seen so many of those focaccia gardenscapes over the year, and I’ve been meaning to try, so it was fun, but not a huge success.
Margaret: So if people haven’t seen them, it’s kind of like decorating the surface of your focaccia in the pan. And in this case, it’s almost like you made a forest or a garden, using asparagus as the trees or the grass, or however you want to think of it, and like you said, some spring onions up in the sky and so forth. So you decorated it.
Margaret: But it was beautiful [laughter].
Ali: Thank you. It was fun. It was fun. Another just really simple thing people can do if you’re just trying to add vegetables to a pasta dish is… And again, this is the revelation you have after you’ve eaten it raw, which is that it needs very little cooking time. But in the last minute of when you’re cooking pasta, just throw in cut up asparagus spears in 1-inch pieces, drop it in the pasta cooking liquid, it cooks for 1 minute, and then drain it. And then you can, whatever sauce you’re using, you just you have this extra vegetable component, which is nice.
Margaret: And I love it with green beans. At green-bean season I do the same thing, which is just at the last minute while the sauce is bubbling, for that last minute before I toss it on the pasta I put in 1-inch pieces of green beans and boom. And it’s just this extra thing and it’s so delicious.
Ali: No, exactly.
Margaret: I’ve been trying to convince, or I am trying to convince, you and your husband Ben to plant asparagus and make room in your emerging, getting-bigger-all-the-time garden for asparagus. And it’s a bit of an investment crop, as you probably know. I had a 30-year-old plot and over, say, the last between year 25 and 30, it was petering out and petering out, and I was in denial and in denial because you have to do the work. It’s kind of a big space.
And last spring, in early pandemic mania mode [laughter], I was like, “Oh, I can redo my asparagus this year.” So I ordered 50 dormant crowns. They come in packs of 25, and you buy them in the winter to be delivered first thing in the spring, as soon as your area thaws. Earliest spring is when they’re planted, these bare-root crowns.
And they come in packs of 25. So if you want two different varieties—I love the purple, but I also wanted some of the green. So you end up with multiples of 25. It’s too much for one person, but whatever. I went a little out of my mind [laughter].
And it’s pretty easy. You have to dig this trench, which is 12 inches deep and 12 inches wide, approximately. And you space these crowns, which look octopus to me, in the bottom of the trench, 18 inches apart. So it’s 12 deep, 12 wide, 18 apart within the row. And you cover them with a couple of inches of the soil that you’ve mounded up on the edge of this trench that you’ve made. Just a couple or few inches.
And then once they sprout you backfill a little bit more and again, and again, and again until you’re up to level. So it’s really a pretty easy thing and the trench doesn’t have to be perfect. There’s lots of theories about when it’s O.K. to pick from a new planting, and some people say, “Oh, you can pick a few spears the first year.” But I decided to wait, so it was really hard. I had these 50 plants. And they sent up a spear or two or three, and I didn’t pick them, and I’m going to let them all go to ferns. [More on how to grow asparagus.]
Ali: So that’s what you do, you let them flower, or what did you say, go to fern?
Margaret: The spears will… They’ll make foliage, like fronds. They’re not actually ferns, but they look fern-y, and they make these big, tall, beautiful—on very thin wands, these ferny-looking foliar things. And that’s how the plant—by conducting photosynthesis—nourishes the roots below and gets more robust, and the row starts to spread and you get more shoots the next year, and more shoots the year after that. If you cut off the fronds, those fern-y things, if you cut off… They’re not fronds, again, I shouldn’t keep saying that.
But if you cut off the foliage, it diminishes the sustenance that’s going down to those roots, which is where your spears are going to come from. So you don’t want to do that. Just you don’t want to cut off the foliage of a daffodil bulb after the bloom is done, because you want that foliage to feed the bulb for next year. So I didn’t pick any. I was really well-behaved [laughter].
Ali: Good job. That’s so hard. I think I would have a really hard time doing that because it’s two to three years that you’re supposed to wait as a general rule?
Margaret: Yeah, I’m going to pick in the second year after planting, which would be the third year it’d be in the ground, but it would only be its second anniversary. So I’m going to pick next year. Have you ever had the purple kinds? I love the purple ones.
Ali: I think at some point I have seen them at the farmer’s market, and had a hard time resisting buying them because they’re so pretty, but just occasionally. Not a lot.
Margaret: Yeah. I used to grow ‘Purple Passion,’ which was, I think, the original purple. Now there’s one called ‘Sweet Purple,’ and the sweet being indicative of the fact that they do seem to taste a little sweeter even. They’re delicious, and they’re beautiful.
So anyway, I hope you guys are going to make room for one and plan for it this winter and put in an order and… It’s good to have the space ready before the order arrives.
Ali: And actually in some ways it’s actually less maintenance if you don’t have to pick them the first year [laughter], if you just let them go… In some ways that would actually be something we could handle.
Margaret: Right. It’s an investment, and you just have to keep it weeded so that it doesn’t compete. That’s all. So in the last few minutes you were naming all these other things that are were at the market. Swiss chard, did you say?
Ali: Yes, this is my favorite time, I feel like, actually for salad, because the kale is so tender, the Swiss chard is so tender, and you can use really any dressing you want on these greens, but they taste… I mean, I came home from the market and the kale, it tasted so sweet, and I love Swiss chard, too. I know it’s not everybody’s favorite, but eating Swiss chard raw was also a revelation. I feel like everybody knows… The kale salad craze made everybody know that they could eat kale raw, but you can do the same thing with Swiss chard. Just remove the ribs and you can save the stems for something else. You can saute them.
Almost the way you chiffonade basil, just thinly slice the Swiss chard leaves. And then the dressing I use, it’s from Merrill Stubbs, from Food52, it’s a really lemony dressing and very similar actually to many of the recipes in Joshua McFadden’s “Six Seasons.” There’s toasted bread crumbs and Parmesan, a little crushed red pepper flakes, and it’s such a good salad. It’s so good. [Get Ali’s Swiss chard salad recipe.]
Margaret: So the only vegetable ingredient is the Swiss chard?
Ali: It is, yes. It’s just the Swiss chard. But you could do it really with any of the tender greens would work. And I love all those tender greens, too, just for things similarly to the asparagus trick of just dropping them in the water, and you can just pile them in a colander and then dump the pasta water over it, so you’re not really cooking it, you’re just blanching it in the hot water, and then you just have this… You can add a pound of vegetables to your pasta really quickly.
Margaret: Among early greens, do you like sorrel, the lemony taste of sorrel leaves [below]? Have you eaten those?
Ali: Again, I don’t see it that often, and I haven’t had it a ton, but when I have had it, it’s been delicious.
Margaret: O.K., because that’s another one that is as old as my old asparagus plot and my rhubarb. Those three things are 25, 30 years old, and they’re perennials all of them. I mean the asparagus does peter out eventually because we pick it, but that’s another one that I want to get you guys, you and Ben to grow, is some sorrel. Because that’ll come back every year, and boy, when those greens come up, it’s practically just as the snow melts, and they are so lemony and delicious and wonderful.
Ali: I had no idea that they were perennial. That was amazing.
Margaret: Yes. The green one is, yes. The one that has red veins in it is very pretty, but it in our northern climate, it doesn’t tend to last as many years. But yes. So sorrel, we’re making a row. I’m going to come over and we’re going to do it [laughter].
Ali: Oh my gosh, that would be amazing. I would love that.
Margaret: Rhubarb, sorrel, and asparagus.
Ali: Oh my gosh. That would be a dream, truly.
Margaret: Well, Ali, thank you for the cooking inspiration. I’ve got to go now and buy some asparagus, because I’m not going to pick mine, and I hope I’ll talk to you again soon.
Ali: Yes, definitely. Thank you for having me.
get all ali’s asparagus recipes & more
- A roundup of Ali Stafford’s asparagus suggestions to make right now
- Ali’s online cooking classes (such fun!)
(Photos except sorrel and pruple asparagus are from the Alexandra’s Kitchen website; used with permission.)
enter to win ‘bread toast crumbs’ (or win my book over at ali’s)
I’LL BUY A COPY of Alexandra Stafford’s “Bread Toast Crumbs” cookbook for one lucky reader. Over on her website, Ali is giving a way a copy of my book “A Way to Garden,” so click over to her post once you comment here and enter there, too. All you have to do to enter my giveaway is answer this question in the comments box below:
What’s your favorite way to eat asparagus?
No answer, or feeling shy? Just say “count me in” or something like that, and I will, but a reply is even better. I’ll pick a random winner after entries close at midnight Tuesday, May 25, 2021. Good luck to all.
(Disclosure: As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.)
prefer the podcast version of the show?
MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its 11th year in March 2020. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the May 17, 2021 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes/Apple Podcasts or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).