The moment I see the first fresh picked asparagus stalks set out at a newly opened farm stand, I have to stop immediately and grab a few bunches. OK, too many bunches; then we eat asparagus for days. When the asparagus arrives, I always get that happy springtime feeling that all is right with the world and more good things are on the way. Asparagus is like a big brass band at the start of a long and exciting edible parade: spinach and sorrel join in, and then strawberries and snap peas, corn and tomatoes, berries, wax beans, onions, peppers, squash, pumpkins, and all the other fruits and vegetables from our local farms, in their turn, come marching by. Having a front row seat to this annual spectacle is by far one of the best things about living out here.
Asparagus is like a big brass band at the start of a long and exciting edible parade.
The arrival of first green food of the year is disproportionately exciting anyway. I think it has to do with some ancestral memory of surviving through March on onion grass and the last withered potatoes in the cellar. Anyway, the asparagus is amazing so far this year, and it seems like there’s more of it around than ever. Some farms grow the thinner, taller, darker-green types, some, the fatter, more purple types; I haven’t seen anyone bother mounding earth to make white asparagus, so I suppose we’ll just leave that to the French. I personally think the assertive, grassy flavors are best when the asparagus is plunged briefly into boiling water and served with good butter and a squeeze of lemon.
I am pretty loyal to Wickham’s Fruit Farm in Cutchogue, because their asparagus is a thick, very crisp variety that I like. My kids like the thin, whippy dark green type, too. I often choose organic these days, so I also go to Garden of Eve Organic Farm in Riverhead. Schmitt Family Farm on Sound Avenue also has great asparagus, if you’re a little further west.
Anyway, all the farms are starting to get very busy again, according to the Long Island Farm Bureau, which gathers data and reports on local agricultural activity. Planting everywhere was delayed by weeks because of the cold, late start to spring, but by the time we reached mid-May, the danger of frost has passed for our region. Broccoli, corn, lettuce and peas are going in, and it’s just about time for peppers and tomatoes to be planted, too. Spinach, a crop that comes first in spring and again in the fall, is also in full swing, according to Bob Nolan from Deer Run Farms in Brookhaven. Fresh, tender spinach is light-years better than the sometimes tough stuff from the stores, so have some faith. And patience — you need to wash spinach by completely submerging it in a cold bath to get out all the sand. I have found it is easy to tame “challenging” leafy greens by chopping very finely, and then tossing in oil and vinegar, to make something like a green slaw, or briefly sautéing to make a bed for poached or fried eggs.
North Fork Potato Chips in Cutchogue is owned by the Sidor family, and started out as the kind of conventional potato farm once typical of the region. In fact, Long Island was nationally famous for its potatoes. Most potato farms have given way to grapes or multi-crop farms, but about a decade ago, the Sidors decided their future lay in potato chips. Each year, saved spuds are set back into the earth, but if they freeze, that’s the end of them. The Sidors report that they are now planting potatoes for the season after waiting out the dangerously cold weather. “It’s not the first time weather has been a concern and it certainly won’t be the last,” says Cheryl Sidor.
Of course, farms with greenhouses have a jump on the season, and many have already opened their doors. Sang Lee Organic Farm in Cutchogue says they have arugula, spinach, kale, mizula, tatsoi, baby bok choy, scallions, radishes, carrots and chard available for sale now.
It’s not just edibles out there on the farms. We have many garden plants, flowers and nursery stock farms, too, like Meyer’s Plant and Produce Farm in Woodbury, which is reporting a full line of vegetable plants for backyard gardens as well as herbs, hanging baskets and potted flowers. Hanging baskets are a big favorite at this time of year,” says Mark Van Bourgondien at C.J. Van Bourgondien, a Long Island wholesale grower. Debbie Schmitt from Schmitts Farm is also preparing local hanging baskets filled with green goldilocks ivy, licorice plant, shade fuschia, begonia and scavola.
It’s time to make that first trip of the year out here to catch the start of the edible parade, and bring home your own carload of springtime happiness! Check out the farm Bureau’s interactive listing of Long Island farm stands and farmers markets.
asparagus photo by Liz West via Creative Commons