“Mother Nature provides such a natural rhythm, and asparagus is highly anticipated because it’s one of the first vegetables of the spring,” says farmer Lee Jones of the Chef’s Garden in northern Ohio. “It’s exciting to see that it’s very temperature sensitive. Once that ground warms up, asparagus is going to quadruple in yield. When asparagus is in season, we should eat it three times a day. And when it’s out of season, we should lust for it for 10 months.”
Need new ideas for cooking asparagus and other seasonal vegetables? Look no further than Jones’ book The Chef’s Garden: A Modern Guide to Common and Unusual Vegetables—With Recipes. His Shaved Asparagus Salad recipe (below) embodies his ethos as a farmer: Use the best produce, at peak, treat it simply and creatively, and waste nothing. In other words: Stop throwing out the bottom of the stalks.
These principles are repeated so often that they seem like common sense—but that wasn’t always so. In the 1970s, the U.S. secretary of agriculture urged farmers to “Get big or get out!” This ushered in a wave of industrial farming that would ultimately crush many small farms, including Jones’ parents’ farm in the early ’80s.
“We were desperate for a way to survive in agriculture,” he recalls. “We begged a neighbor to rent us 50 acres, and we started growing for farmers markets.” One day, a chef impressed by their produce told them they could do well selling to restaurants if they were willing to grow chemical-free, in the interest of better flavor, integrity and nutrition. “We nearly grabbed around both of her ankles and said, ‘OK, teach us.’ And she really did,” Jones says.
One introduction led to another, and before long Jones was shipping produce to Charlie Trotter, Daniel Boulud, Thomas Keller and other chefs. “Charlie was the first chef to have a vegetable prix fixe menu, and we were all about vegetables,” he says. “So we were kind of like a sock and a shoe—we went well together.”
The media took notice too, partly because of the marquee produce but also because Jones promoted the farm’s work, all while sporting his signature bib overalls and bow tie. (Early supporters included the late Michael Batterberry and his wife, Ariane, publishers of Wine Spectator’s iconic sibling magazine Food Arts, now defunct.) No one else has bridged the gap between small American farms and the country’s pre-eminent restaurants as long as Jones has.
Today, he and his family operate the Chef’s Garden as well as the Culinary Vegetable Institute, which has an analytical lab, a test kitchen run by chef Jamie Simpson, and a program of visiting chefs. During the pandemic, the farm took a big hit as sales to restaurants dissipated. Left with a great harvest and no one to buy it, Jones started to convert the business to retail: “The first thing we did was send out about 300 boxes to chefs and said, ‘We know you’re at home. We’re sorry the restaurant is closed, but we’re going to make it through this. Here’s a box of vegetables. And oh, by the way, we’re launching nationwide delivery and we’d love for you to post pictures of some of the things you create.’ ”
Thanks largely to the hospitality industry, within two months survival seemed possible for the farm. Jones had received support that wasn’t available to his parents all those years ago. “They’re generous and they share and they fight to help keep you going, and we do the same for them. There’s a whole community out there. It’s very humbling,” Jones says. “Does any of us think we do this stuff on our own?”
How to Get It
Wine Pros’ Pairings
Asparagus’ distinctive vegetal flavor is a bear with many wines because it can make them taste metallic. But in fact there are plenty of options. Chef Jamie Simpson of the Culinary Vegetable Institute canvassed his broad contacts for matches specific to this recipe. The variety in their suggestions was great, with some of the usual suspects but also some compelling discovery wines. Below are recently reviewed wines from Wine Spectator in the suggested categories to help you explore. And don’t forget: Crisp, springy versions of rosé often make a great foil to asparagus.
- Provençal white: Gérard Bertrand La Clape White Château L’Hospitalet 2021 (92 points, $46)
- Grüner Veltliner: Laurenz Five Grüner Veltliner Kamptal Singing 2021 (89, $16)
- Blanc de blancs Champagne: Perrier-Jouët Brut Blanc de Blancs Champagne NV (92, $85)
- Skin-contact white: A.A. Badenhorst Family Secateurs Riviera Swartland 2021 (92, $18)
- Dry Muscat: Jorge Ordoñez & Co. Moscatel Sierras de Málaga Botani Old Vines 2021 (90, $24)
Shaved Asparagus Salad with Buttermilk-Asparagus Dressing and Pickled Asparagus Tips
- Filtered water, white vinegar, sugar and fine sea salt for pickle brine (see step 1)
- 3 slices day-old sourdough bread, cubed
- ¼ cup plus 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 1 pound large asparagus, preferably multiple colors, snapped-off ends reserved for dressing
- ½ cup buttermilk
- ¼ cup chopped fresh chives, plus more for garnish
- ¼ cup chopped fresh parsley, plus more for garnish
- 1 garlic clove
- 2 teaspoons onion powder
- 1 orange, peel removed, fruit segmented
1. Bring 4 cups filtered water and 1 cup white vinegar to a boil. Add 1/2 cup sugar and 1 teaspoon fine sea salt and stir to dissolve. Let cool. (Brine can be refrigerated for up to a month.)
2. Preheat the oven to 325° F. On a rimmed baking sheet, toss the bread cubes with 2 tablespoons of the olive oil, then season with a little salt and pepper. Bake for 25 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the cubes are crisp. Let cool slightly, then break into coarse breadcrumbs.
3. In a small saucepan, bring 1 cup of the brine to a boil. Meanwhile, remove the tips of the asparagus at 1 1/2 inches. Add the tips to the brine and remove from the heat. Blanch tips until bright green, about 30 seconds. Drain. (If desired, you can store the pickled tips in the brine once it’s cooled down.)
4. Shave the asparagus stalks lengthwise using a sharp peeler, without turning the vegetable. You will begin creating ribbons by peeling all the way through the vegetable to the other side. Transfer the ribbons to a bowl of ice water. Reserve any pieces that will not shave easily for the dressing.
5. In a blender, combine all of the asparagus trimmings, buttermilk, chives, parsley, garlic, onion powder, 1 teaspoon salt and a few cracks of pepper. Blend on high until smooth. Reduce the speed to medium and gradually pour in the remaining 1/4 cup olive oil until fully incorporated. Taste the dressing and season with more salt and pepper, if desired. Strain through a sieve into a jar or bowl. (Dressing can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 1 week.)
6. Remove the shaved asparagus from the ice water and pat dry. Season with some salt. Arrange the ribbons in the center of four serving plates. Scatter the breadcrumbs on the asparagus. Spoon the dressing over the breadcrumbs and asparagus ribbons. Place the pickled asparagus tips in any open spaces. Garnish with the orange segments and finish with more parsley and chives. Add half a turn of pepper to each plate and serve. Serves 4.