The green stalks poke upward, fingerlike, from their mounds, their purple tips vivid in the early morning light. Bent over farmworkers move from row to row, their long-handled knives cutting each asparagus spear one by one.
If you bought your bundle of spears, bound with a purple rubber band, at a supermarket or Costco -- or you live in Japan or Switzerland -- chances are your asparagus began here, 10 inches below the surface of the earth. Furrowed farms across the Sacramento River Delta supply this quintessential spring vegetable -- which can grow an astounding five inches overnight -- to the world.
On this chilly Wednesday morning, the aroma of damp soil and fresh-cut vegetables rises from the fields. Prima Bella owner Mark Bacchetti, grandson of founder Bautista Bacchetti, has headed off to an asparagus breakfast to swap spear talk with fellow farmers. His cousin, John Bacchetti, drives a big white truck with a green "Hug a Farmer" bumper sticker out to survey the verdant furrows and check on the farmworkers who have been picking asparagus since dawn.
This is asparagus cutting season, a three-month period of frenzied harvest. And as the weather warms and the days lengthen, Prima Bella's farm crews will work from dawn to dusk, cutting and recutting the fields, one 9-inch stalk at a time. In the packing shed, the picked asparagus is being packed in wooden crates, assembled on the spot, to be shipped to diners in Tokyo and Kyoto. Fat spears, packed in trapezoidal cartons, are Switzerland bound. Costco? Those are the blue bins.
Growing asparagus is an exercise in delayed gratification.
"It's almost like planting trees," says John Bacchetti.
Linda Butler of Ben Lomond, Calif.'s Lindencroft Farms calls it one of the easiest crops to grow -- if you can delay your dreams of succulent, butter-drenched spears for a couple of years.
"The first year, you can't touch them," says Butler. "The second year, you can take a few spears."
You plant the crowns, the bulblike root of the asparagus plant, in well-prepared soil and then leave them alone. The second year is all about restraint. Greediness -- no matter how culinarily inspired -- will doom these plants. You can have a taste, but that's about it. By the third year, you dwell in asparagus glory.
Of course, some markets carry asparagus year-round now, sometimes at prices reflective of the airfare it must have taken to transport them. But once the cutting season is over in California in May, the plants -- the crowns on Prima Bella's vast acreage are 15 years old, and the Bacchettis pull 1,000 pounds of asparagus per acre -- go to fern growth.
"We basically farm the fern," says John Bacchetti, who grew up at Prima Bella. "In December, after a good frost, the fern goes dormant and the crown goes to sleep. We till it, water it in January and February, then you sit back. The first of March, here come the spears." And they grow in moonlight, as well as sunshine. On a hot spring day, when there's a full moon, he says, the plants grow four or five inches overnight.
"You can watch it grow," he marvels. "We cut a field by 6 a.m. and come back in the afternoon and cut it again. It just keeps coming and coming."
Asparagus and Spring Onion Frittata
1/2 pound small red potatoes, unpeeled
6 large asparagus spears, ends peeled
1 cup finely sliced spring green onions
2 tablespoons butter, divided
8 whole eggs
3 tablespoons heavy cream
2 tablespoons coarsely chopped herbs of your choice
Salt, black pepper
3 ounces bacon, chopped and fried until crisp
4 ounces fresh goat cheese, crumbled
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. In a large pot of boiling salted water, cook the potatoes until tender, about 15 minutes. Drain. When cool enough to handle, slice thickly.
Steam the asparagus spears for 2 or 3 minutes, cool in ice water to stop the cooking and set the color. Slice crosswise into bite size pieces.
Saute onions in 1 tablespoon butter until softened.
Whisk the eggs and cream thoroughly. Stir in onions and herbs. Season with salt and pepper.
Spread the cooked asparagus and bits of remaining butter in the bottom of a 10-inch nonstick ovenproof saute pan, over medium heat. When sizzling, about 2 minutes, whisk the egg mixture to recombine and pour over the asparagus. Evenly distribute the bacon, potatoes and goat cheese around the pan, being sure not to neglect the outer edges. Cook for 2 minutes.
Transfer to hot oven and bake until fully set, about 12 minutes. It will be a little loose in the center. Pass the pan under the broiler for 1 minute, or until lightly browned. Invert onto a warm serving plate, slice into wedges and serve hot or at room temperature. Serves 4.
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Grilled Lamb and California Asparagus Pitas with Tzatziki Sauce
1/2 cucumber, peeled and chopped
1 cup plain Greek yogurt
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1 small garlic clove, minced
1/4 teaspoon each salt and pepper
1/4 cup chopped fresh mint
1 1/2 pounds lamb in 2-inch cubes
2 bunches asparagus, ends trimmed
Salt, pepper to taste
4 pita pockets, cut in half
1/4 cup mint leaves, whole
2 tomatoes, cubed
1/2 cup pitted Kalamata olives
Puree all the tzatziki ingredients in a blender until almost smooth. Chill.
Toss lamb cubes and asparagus with oil, salt and pepper. Grill until asparagus is tender and lamb cubes are medium-rare. Cut asparagus into 2-inch pieces.
Lightly grill both sides of the pita breads until heated through but soft. Wrap pitas in foil for a few minutes to steam.
Divide sandwich ingredients evenly among the 8 pita-halves. Drizzle with the tzatziki sauce and serve immediately.