Asparagus is a member of the lily family and is related to onions, leeks and garlic. First cultivated in Greece about 2,500 years ago, it is the premier vegetable of spring. Grown for its slender, immature stalk, this perennial plant multiplies through its root system and will grow for many years in climates where the soil freezes.
Asparagus can be grown from seed or 1-year old roots called crowns. Crowns develop faster than seed-grown plants and can be harvested much sooner. Plant crowns in full sun 15" deep, space 18" apart, and fan the roots in all directions. Fill the trench halfway with the removed soil; when foliage peeks above the soil, fill in the trench completely.
The amount of asparagus to grow depends on how much you love asparagus and how much room you have available. Don’t harvest any during its first year; during the second year, harvest sparingly for 1 to 2 weeks before mid-June. A mature crop is 5 years old and may be harvested for about 10 weeks.
Asparagus and Shiitake Risotto
5 cups chicken broth
1 cup water
1 pound thin to medium asparagus, trimmed and cut into 1/4-inch slices, leaving tips 1 1/2 inches long
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 stick (1/4 cup) unsalted butter
3/4 pound fresh shiitake mushrooms, stems discarded and caps cut into 1/4-inch slices
1 small onion, finely chopped
1 1/2 cups Arborio rice
1/2 cup dry white wine
2 ounces finely grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese (1 cup)
Bring broth and water to a boil in a 4-quart pot. Add asparagus and cook, uncovered, until crisp-tender, 3 to 4 minutes. Transfer asparagus with a slotted spoon to a large bowl of ice water to stop cooking, then drain and pat dry. Keep broth at a bare simmer, covered.
Heat oil with 1 tablespoon butter in a 4-quart heavy saucepan over moderately high heat until foam subsides, then sauté mushrooms, stirring occasionally, until browned, about 4 minutes. Season with salt and pepper, then transfer to a bowl.
Cook onion in 2 tablespoons butter in saucepan over moderate heat, stirring, until softened, about 3 minutes. Add rice and cook, stirring, 1 minute. Add wine and cook, stirring, until absorbed, about 1 minute.
Ladle in 1 cup simmering broth and cook at a strong simmer, stirring, until absorbed, about 2 minutes. Continue simmering and adding broth, about 1/2 cup at a time, stirring frequently and letting each addition be absorbed before adding the next, until rice is just tender and looks creamy, 18 to 20 minutes.
Remove from heat and stir in 1/2 cup cheese, remaining tablespoon butter, and salt and pepper to taste. Gently stir in asparagus and mushrooms, then cover pan and let stand 1 minute. If desired, thin risotto with some of remaining broth. Serve immediately with remaining cheese on the side.
Makes 4 main-course servings.