It is spring in Michigan, the time of year when I get a bit of a green tinge from eating too much local asparagus. And, since I planted my very own crop last year, this is a special season as I had the chance to savor a few of my own spears – but just a few. Asparagus, a perennial, cannot be harvested in the first two years after planting. This allows the shoots in years one and two to grow into tall lacy plants which send lots of nutrients to the roots for later harvests. But, of course, I couldn’t bear to wait until year three. So, I cheated and picked just a few spears. They were a true guilty pleasure!
After eating our three little spears, it was time to head off to the local asparagus farm. In the U.S., if you live in Michigan, California or Washington, you are likely near asparagus farms where you can get plenty of asparagus picked fresh right where it is grown. Northern Europe, the Vale of Evesham in England particularly, is also well suited to spring asparagus. In winter, look to places like Peru or Mexico for good asparagus. While asparagus is now available year-round in most places, the best asparagus, like most produce, can be found locally grown where it arrives at your doorstep in short order.
Now, what to do with this abundance of fresh asparagus? Of course, grilling with a light coating of olive oil and a bit of salt and pepper is easy and yummy. But when I am working my way through the asparagus from my third or fourth weekly trips to the farm, I need a bit of variety in my asparagus menu! The do-ahead Asparagus Tarts below are a fun option for me – a tasty appetizer and great to refrigerate or freeze for unexpected guests. And for all the extra asparagus you picked up at your local farm and that you can’t possibly find time to cook, I’ve included some tips for storage.
Cooking Fundamentals: How to Refrigerate/Freeze Fresh Asparagus
With an abundance of in-season asparagus, it is critical to store the surplus correctly so that it lasts as long as possible.
Refrigerate: For storage of a week or more, cut about 1/4 inch off the tips of your asparagus and place spears upright in a tall one quart container. Add about 1/2 inch of water to the base of the container and place in the refrigerator. I find that very fresh (just-off-the-farm) asparagus will store nicely up to 2 weeks this way; for store-bought, it is about a week. Some recommend placing plastic over the container, but I prefer to let mine breathe.
Freeze: Blanching before freezing will help to deter active enzymes in your vegetables, and it adds color. For asparagus, I usually cut spears into lengths about 2 inches long. It helps to blanch more evenly and makes storage easier. To blanch, drop in boiling water for about 2 minutes or steam for 2-4 minutes (actual time will depend on your volume and set-up). The asparagus should turn a bright green and be heated through. After blanching, spread on paper towels to dry and then place on a sheet pan for freezing. Once frozen, slide the asparagus into plastic freezer bags or containers. This asparagus will be perfect for soups or an asparagus quiche, but will, of course, not retain the origianl crisp texture required for some recipes.
Asparagus Tarts with Panko Crust
8 ounces cream cheese, room temperature
1 cup parmesan, finely shredded
1 egg, large
3 T sour cream
2 t tarragon, fresh, chopped
1/4 cup scallions, chopped
1/2 teaspoon lemon zest
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
12 spears asparagus, chopped in 1/3 inch slices
1 1/4 cup panko bread crumbs
6 tablespoons butter, melted
DirectionsHave ready: flexible silicon mini-muffin pans (I prefer Demarle Flexipans). You’ll need about 24 compartments (each 2 ounces. If using traditional pans, line compartments.
Beat cream cheese until creamy. Add 1/4 cup of the Parmesan, the egg, sour cream, fresh tarragon, scallions, lemon zest, salt and pepper. Set aside.
Wash and chop asparagus. Bring a small saucepan of water to a boil and blanch asparagus for about 1 minute (or you can steam for 2 minutes). Drain, cool in cold water, and drain thoroughly.
Add asparagus to cream cheese mixture.
Preheat oven to 350°F (I prefer convection).
Mix panko, and remaining Parmesan in a small bowl. Melt butter and mix thoroughly into panko mixture. Reserve about 1/3 cup of the panko/parmesan mixture for the topping.
ASSEMBLY: Spoon about 4 teaspoons (one rounded tablespoon) panko/parmesan mixture into the bottom of each muffin cup. Press lightly to form the bottom crust (you do not need to press up the sides of the cup). Spoon about 4 teaspoons (one rounded tablespoon) cream cheese/asparagus mixture into each cup on top of the panko/parmesan mixture. If using 2-ounce cups, this should fill the cups about 3/4 full. Sprinkle about 1 teaspoon panko mixture in each cup as a topping.
Bake asparagus tarts in the middle of the oven, rotating the pan halfway through cooking time. Bake until golden on top and set – about 25-30 minutes. Cool in pans 5 minutes.
If using flexible pans, tarts should be very easy to remove from pans.
Arrange tarts on serving platter. Garnish with scallions or other herbs and serve.
DO-AHEAD DIRECTIONS: For delayed service, cooked tarts can be assembled a few hours ahead, refrigerated in the baking pans uncooked and baked at service time. If you need to make a day ahead, assemble, bake and then refrigerate for reheating at service time (350 deg). To make more than one day ahead, freeze in a tightly sealed container in single layers on parchment paper.