by: Mario Stojanac
Asparagus. Few things represent the shedding of winter’s grey coat quite like this pointy little perennial. On a recent trip a couple of hours west of the Greater Toronto Area, Mary Luz and I got to know Ontario’s garden for the first time, partaking in a day filled with asparagus, pork, lavender and cider.
On the Welsh Brothers’ farm in Norfolk county, we discovered that much of the locally consumed asparagus was of the Millennium variety, developed specifically for our growing conditions at the University of Guelph (though note that this is no GMO asparagus – that concept doesn’t actually exist). While the asparagus industry’s numbers were impressive (80 growers, 12-15 million lbs produced annually) what resonated for me was the incredibly manual manner in which these little spears were harvested, as well as the seasonal ticking clock that must clatter with ever-increasing alarm in many an asparagus farmer’s head.
The season is so short, lasting but a couple of months, and with asparagus breaking ground seemingly at random and reaching the ideal 9” height at different times, the pickers seem to have their work cut out for them. Mounted 3 men wide on a contraption resembling a lawnmower’s unhappy collision with a combine harvester, these chaps spend much of their day stooped over in their seats, harvesting the stalks with regular steak knives. Up and down the rows they go, trimming away at the land as if giving an (annoyingly) sparsely hirsute Jolly Green Giant a never-ending series of haircuts. Most of these chaps are from Mexico, and with that in mind, I developed an asparagus-y tribute to their backbreakingly delicious harvest (see below).
We also discovered that Norfolk County has a varied profile, including the burgeoning wine, cider and lavender industry at Bonnie Heath Estate. The verdant and lavender-covered vistas were bathed in sunshine and wonderfully relaxing, admittedly more so after one (or two) of their amazingly crisp Folkin’ Hard ciders. These are small batch made and available in apple and apple/cherry versions, the former’s crisp and slightly funky finish makes it my favourite. Thank goodness the farm switched crops from tobacco to lavender and apples.
Norfolk County now boasts 9 wineries, and also produces hazelnuts and hops – a hidden gem just past Hamilton that is definitely worthy of a relaxing day trip or two. Our many thanks also go to Steve Hellmann of Foodies on Foot for organizing this wonderfully fun Norfolk County #asparabus excursion. Gracias!
Espárragos al estilo Mexicano (Mexican-style asparagus)
1 large bunch asparagus
4 Tbsp Olive Oil + more to drizzle
1large cooking onion, diced
2 large tomatoes, diced
1 chipotle in adobo (note: these are available tinned. 1 chipotle will make a hot relish. Add only half a chipotle or remove seeds to lower the heat quotient)
Generous pinch oregano
1 Spanish or Mexican chorizo, removed from casing and crumbled (optional)
Salt and Pepper (to taste)
Start by making the relish:
If using chorizo, sauté the sausage in a cast iron skillet, breaking it up with a wooden spoon;
Cook till done and then remove from heat:
If using chorizo, then use the same skillet with the rendered fat still in it. If not using chorizo, heat olive oil in a cast-iron skillet on medium heat;
Sautee onions until translucent, stirring regularly to avoid caramelization at this point;
Finely dice the chipotle and add to onions, stirring in for 30 seconds or so to ensure even distribution;
Add tomatoes and incorporate into onions. Continue to cook until tomatoes start to disintegrate and relish thickens;
If using chorizo, incorporate the fried chorizo into the relish now;
Stir in oregano and let simmer on very low heat for another minute or two;
Pre-heat a separate skillet or barbecue grill (on high);
Drizzle olive oil over asparagus and toss into skillet or onto barbecue grill;
Cook for up to 5 minutes, moving asparagus around. Allow asparagus to caramelize and blacken slightly in parts, but ensure that it remains firm and does not overcook:
Remove grilled asparagus from heat and place on serving platter with a generous smattering of sea salt and black pepper;
Pour relish over the middle of the asparagus so that the tips are still visible;
Squeeze lime over the dish prior to serving or serve with lime wedges.