Not long ago, I was asked if I had ever picked wild asparagus.
The answer was “No,” but it got me thinking.
I’ve picked wild mushrooms, wild strawberries and wild mint but I have never been so lucky as to come across a patch of wild asparagus while walking in the great outdoors.
Come to think of it, I have seen no mention of wild asparagus in the memoirs of Prairie pioneers. They were masters at foraging (poverty will do that) and would joyously pounce on the first edible greens of spring.
Dandelion, purslane, lamb’s quarters. After a winter of root vegetables, these tender young greens were welcomed to the dinner table like long lost friends.
Nor have I found mention of wild asparagus among the foods of the indigenous people of the northern plains.
There are references to cattails and wild turnip (also called breadroot) and fiddleheads. Foraging was a way of life. So why no wild asparagus?
The answer is simple: wild asparagus (like the dandelion) is a European transplant gone rogue. It was planted in Prairie gardens and took off, thanks to the help of birds that ate the mature seeds and deposited them in suitable growing grounds.
Whereas dandelions (and other greens we all weed) thrive in cultivated environments such as gardens, asparagus prefers to be undisturbed.
The more the land was cultivated the less this wild adventurer found a place to call home. Today we find wild asparagus growing in ditches and coulees that have not been mowed or plowed — if we find it at all.
Fortunately, I can now buy asparagus at the farmers’ market thanks to local gardeners who have established large asparagus beds. It’s the same plant — Asparagus officinalis — that we find in grocery stores and growing in the wild.
According to botanical histories, asparagus is native to the eastern Mediterranean and Asia, where it has been cultivated for a very long time. The name is based on the Greek word for sprout.
Last year, I found myself in Germany in asparagus season. The Germans make a big deal of their “spargel” and eat copious amounts of it in many different ways.
It is prominently displayed in grocery stores, often with a selection of wines that one might enjoy with it. Asparagus is notoriously hard to pair with wine.
However, German asparagus is predominantly white. Whereas in Canada we prize the slim green stalks, in Germany they prefer it white and fat as a cigar.
This, too, is the same asparagus but grown with a covering that prevents access to the sun. Without sunshine there is no chlorophyll and therefore no green.
A few years ago I hosted a dinner at my house for four special guests: CBC radio host Shelagh Rogers and three other Prairie writers — Allan Casey, Dianne Warren and Jo-Anne Episkenew (sadly recently deceased).
The event was recorded and later played on CBC Radio’s “The Next Chapter.”
I planned to serve an asparagus quiche. When it was relayed to me that one of our guests could not eat gluten, I modified the recipe to eliminate the pastry crust and use Parmesan cheese instead.
I topped it with another first of spring — little purple pansies growing wild in my garden.
Asparagus Quiche with Parmesan Crust
- 1 lb. asparagus
- 1-3 tbsp. butter
- 1/2 small onion, chopped
- 1/2 red pepper, chopped
- Small bunch of chives, chopped
- 8 large eggs
- 1/2 c. half and half cream
- Salt and pepper
- 3-4 tbsp. grated Parmesan cheese
- 2 c. grated cheddar cheese
- 12 pansy flowers (optional)
Snap off the lower ends of asparagus and discard. Choose 12 even spears and trim to 4 inches. Grill or roast the 12 spears until partially cooked. Set aside. Melt 1 tbsp. of butter in a skillet. Sauté onion, red pepper and chopped asparagus until they are half-cooked. Toss in chives. Meanwhile, use a fork to whip together the eggs and cream. Season with salt and pepper. Rub a pie plate generously with butter. Sprinkle on the Parmesan cheese, pressing it across the bottom and up the sides of the pie plate. Spread with the onion mixture. Sprinkle on the grated cheddar. Pour the eggs over all. Using a fork, press the cheese below the surface of the egg. Lay the 12 asparagus spears evenly on the top of the quiche like the spokes of a wheel. Set a pansy between each spear. Bake at 375 F for 35-40 minutes. The quiche is done when a knife inserted into the centre comes out dry.