The return of Hadley grass

By TINKY WEISBLAT

For the Recorder

Published: 05-12-2021 2:16 PM

I planned to write today about a local restaurant — and I will visit that spot in another column — but I was distracted and entranced last week when I passed a farm stand that featured fresh local asparagus. I couldn’t wait to buy and cook some green spears.

When I’m asked one of those hypothetical food questions — ”What foods would you take with you to a desert island?” or “What would you choose to eat for your last meal on death row?” — I have no trouble making a decision. I opt for asparagus all the way.

Of course, asparagus is a cool-climate plant and therefore unlikely to grow on a desert island. And a prison chef would probably cook it until it was soggy. Nevertheless, I could eat even soggy asparagus every day and be reasonably happy.

In May and June, this vegetable is everywhere here in the Pioneer Valley. As David Nussbaum recalled a few years ago in an article in “Saveur,” the Connecticut River Valley was the world’s asparagus capital between the 1930s and the 1970s.

Hadley Grass, as it was called, was shipped throughout the northeast and occasionally even overseas. It was purportedly enjoyed by the Royal Family at Buckingham Palace in England.

When a blight infected the crop in the mid-1970s, Nussbaum wrote, asparagus in the area was hard hit. It took a while to find a blight-resistant strain, and many farmers moved on. Today, it is mostly locals who enjoy what remains of this formerly dominant crop.

Many Western Massachusetts asparagus fans still use the term Hadley Grass, adapted from Sparrow Grass, a popular nickname for the vegetable in the 1700s and 1800s. Lexicographer John Walker wrote in the 1790s, “Sparrow grass is so general that asparagus has an air of stiffness and pedantry.”

I was 6 or 7 years old when I first realized how much I loved fresh asparagus. My family was visiting one of my father’s graduate-school professors in Wisconsin. Like many Midwesterners, Carl Bagholt and his wife, Julia, tended a huge garden.

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When I took my first bite of the Bagholts’ freshly harvested asparagus, I was amazed at its flavor and texture. It tasted more like butter than any vegetable should. 

I kept eating; and eating; and eating. Professor Bagholt eyed me with academic interest as he filled my plate. He had probably never seen a little girl who could eat such quantities of asparagus. I have a feeling he was wondering at what point I would turn green and explode.

I haven’t consumed that much asparagus at one sitting since, but I still remember that visit with pleasure. And I celebrate asparagus season every year. I don’t make desserts with my beloved green vegetable; I leave that to Flayvors of Cook Farm in Hadley, with its famous asparagus ice cream.

I do try to eat and cook asparagus every day when it’s in season. Mostly, I steam, boil or broil it pretty much as is. It’s great straight up or with a slice of prosciutto wrapped around it. It’s also delectable in a quesadilla with cheddar cheese or maybe even a more exotic cheese like Roquefort.

Occasionally, I dress it up as I do in the recipes below. Both involve cheese and garlic, which pair beautifully with asparagus.

Enjoy this magical season.

Taffy’s Asparagus Penne

Taffy was my late mother. My sister-in-law, Leigh, and I invented this recipe to honor our matriarch one Mother’s Day. I make it every May in her honor.

1 pound penne

2 pounds fresh asparagus, cut into bite-size pieces

½ cup extra-virgin olive oil (plus a bit more if you like)

10 large cloves of garlic, cut lengthwise into thin pieces

½ teaspoon salt (optional; if you put lots of salt in the penne and asparagus waters you won’t need it) 

freshly ground pepper to taste

¼ cup (½ stick) sweet butter

Freshly grated Italian cheese (such as Parmesan or Pecorino Romano) to taste — at least 1 cup and maybe more

A handful fresh parsley, finely chopped

First, cook the penne according to the package instructions. When it is cooked al dente, drain it, rinse it in cold water to cool it off and drain it again.

While the pasta is cooking, place the asparagus in boiling water and boil it for 2 minutes. Carefully drain the asparagus, rinse it with very cold water and drain it again.

When the pasta is ready and drained, pour the oil into a large skillet, and warm it over medium heat for about a minute, until it begins to shimmer. The oil will be very hot. Carefully add the pieces of garlic to the oil and cook, stirring vigorously, until the garlic begins to brown. (This won’t take long.)

Add the asparagus, the salt (if needed) and the pepper to the garlic. Cook for another 2 minutes, shaking or stirring gently.

Add the pasta and the butter and cook until the vegetables and pasta are hot and well mixed, 3 to 4 minutes. 

Carefully transfer the mixture to a serving bowl, and toss in lots of cheese. Sprinkle the chopped parsley on top.

Serve immediately.

Serves eight.

If you want to add meat to this dish, throw a little Prosciutto or cooked, chopped bacon in along with the cheese.

Asparagus à la Bambi

This recipe is adapted from one invented by Bambi Miller, of Charlemont, an avid gardener and an excellent cook.

1 pound fresh asparagus

Extra-virgin olive oil as needed

Lots of garlic — about five cloves, chopped

Fresh basil, chives, or cilantro, chopped

¼ pound feta cheese

Freshly ground pepper

Blanch or steam the asparagus for 1 minute in a pan, and remove it quickly. Coat a frying pan with olive oil and then add some more — a big splash. Heat the oil to high but do not burn it. Sizzle the garlic in the olive oil, tossing in the herbs. Add the asparagus and quickly sear. 

Remove the asparagus from the pan, and place it on a serving dish. Put the cooked garlic on top, and crumble feta cheese on top of that. Drizzle the remaining oil and herbs from the pan onto the cheese. 

Grind fresh pepper over all, and garnish with a little more herb if you can’t resist. This dish may be served hot or cold. Serves two as a main dish or four as a side dish. Bambi insists that the asparagus must be eaten with one’s fingers.

Tinky Weisblat is the award-winning author of “The Pudding Hollow Cookbook,” “Pulling Taffy,” and “Love, Laughter, and Rhubarb.” Visit her website, TinkyCooks.com.

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