This time of year, my culinary dreams are filled with overflowing baskets of delicate green vegetables — peas, artichokes, fava beans, leeks, baby lettuces, garlic scapes, nettles and other wild greens and herbs. Plus, for me, the one vegetable that truly heralds spring's arrival: asparagus.
When I see those slender green spears wrapped in tidy, uniform bunches standing so straight and tall at the local markets and farm stands, impulse takes over and I end up with far more than could be eaten in a normal amount of time. If you experience similar asparagus-induced purchasing issues — but aren't sure what to do with all those spears beyond simply freezing or eating raw, steamed, sautéed or grilled — pickle them!
The Health Benefits of Asparagus
In addition to its fabulous flavor, asparagus is packed with vitamins K, A and C, calcium and potassium — important for bone, skin, nail, hair and eye health. One of the richest sources of B vitamins, particularly folic acid, asparagus helps regulate levels of blood sugar and homocysteine, and is an extremely beneficial addition to a fertility and pregnancy diet.
Asparagus also contains an impressive number of antioxidants. One antioxidant in particular, glutathione, plays an important role in regulating protein synthesis and the prevention of certain cancers and diseases. Chromium, a trace mineral found in asparagus, enhances insulin’s ability to effectively transport glucose from the blood into our cells. Asparagus also has a high fiber content and contains the carbohydrate "polyfructan" inulin, which helps support good digestive health.
Let's Pickle Some Asparagus
I assure you that pickled vegetables — when done well — are worthy of praise and a feature on your plate, not to be pushed aside or tossed to the squirrels at a barbecue. Even better are simple, fresh, vibrant quick pickles. We're big fans in my house, and these spicy asparagus pickles do not disappoint. Furthermore, the lacto-fermentation gives your body a jump-start on breaking down nutrients, which can improve absorption of all those vitamins and minerals!
- 1 bunch thin asparagus spears, woody ends snapped off
- 2½ cups water, divided
- 2¼ teaspoons kosher salt
- 3 garlic cloves, roughly chopped
- 1 teaspoon whole mixed color peppercorns (I used black, green and pink, but you can use any combination or plain black peppercorns if that's what you have on hand)
- 2 dried bay leaves
- 2 fresh fennel fronds
- 4 dried red chili peppers
- 1 teaspoon dried red chili flakes
- 1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
- Trim the asparagus to fit a tall 1-quart jar. Fill a small rectangular casserole dish or rimmed sheet tray with ice water. Place the trimmed asparagus in the ice water for 20 minutes to help them crisp up.
- In a small saucepan over high heat, bring ½ cup water to simmer. Remove from heat and add salt, stirring to dissolve. Add the remaining 2 cups water and set aside to cool.
- Once the pickling liquid is cool, add apple cider vinegar and stir to incorporate. Stand the chilled asparagus in your jar with the spears sticking up. Add all of the pickling spices (garlic, peppercorns, bay leaves, fennel fronds, chili peppers and chili flakes) and pour in the brine. If there isn't enough to submerge the asparagus entirely, mix a pinch of salt into as much cool water as you need to top it off.
- Cover the jar loosely with its lid or a cotton dish towel or several layers of cheesecloth secured with a rubber band. Store in a cool, dry place away from direct sunlight 5 to 7 days.
- Once the brine is cloudy, sample a spear: if it smells and tastes "pickle-y," the jar is ready. Store it in the refrigerator for 1 to 2 weeks. If not, return the loose-fitting lid or cloth and place the jar back into its safe spot to continue fermenting. Try again in 1 to 2 days, then store in the refrigerator as previously directed.
- Skinny spears will be more tender and snappy. Fat asparagus spears are fine to use, but may require an extra day or so of fermentation.
- In place of fennel fronds, you may substitute fresh dill fronds or a sprig of another herb, such as rosemary or thyme.
- Want a less spicy pickle? Omit the dried chili peppers and/or dried red chili flakes. Try adding 1 teaspoon yellow mustard seeds in their place.