Thursday, April 4, 2013

Preserving some of the freshness of spring: freezing asparagus


The summer between freshman and sophomore year in university, I had a seasonal job in the Bird's Eye frozen foods processing plant. Specifically, I worked the asparagus harvest. I was tried at many stations -- the cutting room (ooh, now that was a scary place, the things I saw!), the steam blancher, sorting and packing, and finally, where I spent the bulk of my employment there, I was the single quality control person for the overnight shift of the asparagus.

Yes, you read that right, this 19 year-old version of me was in complete charge of quality control for half of that plant's asparagus harvest (the other half was manned by someone on the day shift). My supervisor came around, once per week, to watch me work for all of 10 minutes. I can scarcely believe that the quality of a food product would be at the mercy of a university student. But that's how these operations work.

My job entailed checking all the boxes for things that didn't belong, weighing and adjusting the amounts for each box, and removing any asparagus which had obviously gotten stuck in a crack in the steam blancher for several hours. You could say I got a crash course in preparing asparagus for freezing, that summer, long ago.

Fast forward to today, I did not lose my taste for asparagus that year, and I enjoy eating my fill each spring, and freezing several pounds for meals later. I have my own "system" for the preparation and packing of asparagus. I froze about 4 pounds last week, enough for 6 meals.

I begin the day that I bring the asparagus home from the market. I place all the spears upright in a container with water, cover with a plastic bag and store in the fridge, until I can get to it, usually within one day.


I do all this in parts, assembly line fashion. I use: 1 9 X 11-inch baking dish for rinsing asparagus, cutting board and knife, 1 large pot of water, 1 mesh strainer, 1 colander in an ice water bath, 1 spare dinner plate for draining, 1 dinner plate covered with a tea towel for blotting, a slotted scoop, plastic bags, a drinking straw

I fill a 9 X 11-inch baker half full with water, and rinse the spears, laying down, removing stray strands of grass.


If the spears have portions of white still on them, I trim these off. You can snap the spears, or cut. I find cutting to be simpler. If I come across a spear that feels tough to cut, I simply cut higher up the spear until it feels tender.

I save these scraps of trimmings in a container in the freezer, for making stock later.


I cut the spears in half, on the diagonal (it looks prettier that way, and camouflages the tips from the ends, just a bit).


Meanwhile, I prepare my blanch and cooling stations. I fill a large pot with water and bring to a boil.

I fill a large bowl with ice water, and set a colander in the water.


I place a dinner plate next to the ice water bath, for draining.

I set another plate out and cover with a dish towel (for blotting). And I keep a supply of bags handy for filling.

When the water has come to a boil, I fill a mesh strainer with trimmed and halved asparagus spears, and immerse in the boiling water for 30 seconds. I use the same timing method my mother always used. I count briskly, 1 Mississippi, 2 Mississippi, 3 Mississippi, etc to 30 Mississippi. This approximates 30 seconds, and doesn't require me to fuss with a timer.


I quickly pull the strainer out of the boiling water, and use a slotted spoon to scoop any stray spears into the strainer.


I dump the contents into the ice water bath/colander set-up. This quick-cools the asparagus so that it doesn't continue cooking.


When the asparagus is cooled (I swish it around the ice water for a minute or two with my hand), I pull the colander out of the water and set on the plate to drain.


Once drained, I unload the contents onto the dish towel, to further blot.


I, then, fill small bags with the blanched pieces,


and set these bags in the fridge, as I go, unsealed, to begin the chilling process.


When I have finished blanching, cooling, filling bags with all the asparagus, I use a drinking straw to suck the air out of each bag, and seal it shut. This is poor man's vacuum sealing.


I separate all the sealed bags in the freezer, to insure rapid freezing. Once all are frozen solid, I pack them together in a large freezer bag.

It should be noted, if you want crisp-tender asparagus, you'll need to eat it fresh. Frozen asparagus loses some of its original texture. But I enjoy this frozen asparagus in dishes like chicken (or ham) and asparagus crepes in cream sauce, or, asparagus, rice and chicken bake, or, thawed and marinated in vinaigrette to add to salads. If you find that you don't enjoy the texture of frozen asparagus, then my next favorite way to use it is pureed in cream of asparagus soup.

Just a favorite way to save some of spring's freshness.

11 comments:

  1. Lili,
    I love asparagus! Fresh asparagus is so costly in the market where we live-I remember my Mom had a wonderful asparagus garden. We would enjoy our fill and then she would let it grow up and it would create a beautiful hedge!
    Your step by step instructions are great-I may just splurge and buy some this weekend and try this all out!

    Thank you for this most useful tip!
    Happy Thursday-
    Jemma

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    Replies
    1. Hi jemma,
      We are very fortunate on two accounts here, with pricing of asparagus. First, a lot of the US asparagus crop is grown in Washington state, in eastern Washington. (But the asparagus that I bought last week came from California.) And second, my favorite highway produce stand opened just last week. Being an outdoor stand, they have little overhead, and consequently fabulous prices. I paid 99 cents/lb last week. Meanwhile, all the supermarkets had it priced from $1.99 to $2.99 per pound.

      How wonderful that your mom grew asparagus in her garden! I have tried twice to grow it here. Our soil is too cool and wet for a good crop. I have one last plan to try and grow it in my garden, in a raised bed. We shall see. Perhaps next year.

      Have a wonderful day!

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  2. Yum, I love asparagus :) Using a straw to suck out the extra air is a brilliant idea - I will be implementing it in my kitchen from now on. Is there a reason why you don't seal the bags straight away, or is it just to work more efficiently as an assembly line?

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    Replies
    1. Hi Economies,
      Yeah, poor man's vacuum sealing. When blanching veggies to freeze, you want to work as quickly as possible and get them to the frozen stage in minimal time. That's where manufacturers have the home preserver beat. They flash freeze the veggies, and that preserves some of the original texture of the vegetables.

      So, by not bothering to seal the bags one at a time, and just getting them into the fridge to begin the cooling, shaves a bit of time off the preparation.

      The other thing is to spread the packets out in your freezer, so they each freeze quickly. A bundle of unfrozen stuff will take longer to freeze, than several small packets spread out.

      Good luck with freezing!

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  3. Wow! You really are an expert! I've got two bundles in the fridge right now, but I love the fresh stuff so much, I kinda doubt I'll end up freezing any!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Cat,
      It's a hard choice for me, do I eat it all fresh, or save some for later? Luckily for me, the produce stand where I buy asparagus (for 99 cents/lb) just got more in today. I may have to stop in for another bundle, just to eat fresh. The texture and flavor is so fantastic when fresh cooked. It really does taste like spring, to me.
      Enjoy yours!

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  4. I learned the same things you did, at the same place, but I was two years older and the shift supervisor... LOL

    AV

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  5. dear lili,
    i love asparagus,but it's to expensive for me,at the moment. maybe next month.thanks for the very good information !!!!!!!
    wish you a wonderful day,
    love regina

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    Replies
    1. HI Regina!
      I am hoping that spring comes your way very soon, and you can have your fill of all the yummy asparagus, too!

      Thanks for dropping by!

      Delete
  6. Hello Quang Nghiem,
    This is a very hard choice for me, do I eat it all fresh? Luckily for me, the produce stand where I buy asparagus just got more in today. I may have to stop in for another bundle, just to eat fresh. The texture and flavor is so fine when fresh cooked. It really does taste like spring for everybody.

    Good luck with freezing!

    ReplyDelete