Asparagus is 93% water. That’s what Stockton, CA felt like on the first Friday of the 2014 Asparagus Festival, as it rained enough to shut down the first of a three-day foodie event. Thankfully the rain stopped long enough on Saturday for droves of people to come out and celebrate asparagus together under an overcast sky. Most of the droves drove and the numerous parking lots within blocks were filled quickly, but at least street parking in Stockton isn’t metered on the weekends.
We attended last year and sampled every bite (and sip) of asparagus. Of course this year we wanted to enjoy some more, but to avoid redundancy we also wanted to try other creative cooking. If only there was time to do it all in just one visit!
The festival takes up a large area, so there is plenty to experience while shuffling from food stand to food stand. While we walked around, we listened to Berlin as they played on one of several entertainment stages billed to host a variety of bands and singers. There were also chef demonstrations, shopping vendors, children’s activities, a farmers market, eating competitions, dog agility competitions, a hole-in-one golf competition, paddleboats for rent, and a sea lion exhibit.
Food, beverages, and alcoholic drinks are generally purchased with tickets, which are found in the white tents that are conveniently marked on the map in the free brochure – make sure to pick one up when you enter. The cost is $1 per ticket and most items were three to six tickets, but lots of food vendors were accepting cash, as well. We did not have any alcoholic drinks, but we know from trying them last year that they are good. These folks were happy to let us snap a shot of their yummy asparagus margaritas.
Asparagus Alley is the legendary collection of gigantic tents where groups of volunteers produce an asparagus spread en masse. Last year we tried the asparagus beef burritos, asparagus steak hoagies, and asparagus pasta, but the most popular item that people flock to is the deep fried asparagus. The batter itself was light and crunchy, sprinkled with a good amount of sharp Parmesan cheese. The asparagus itself was cooked perfectly – not mushy, and not stringy. It was hot and fresh, too, so the crew of volunteers was really working well together this year.
Did you think we wouldn’t have another round of asparagus ice cream? Truly it is tasty. Tasty enough that we each got our own instead of just “sampling.” The asparagus flavor is light over a rich and creamy vanilla base; anyone saying they didn’t like it was in denial and couldn’t get over the fact that there was asparagus in the ice cream. Little chunks are visible but it does little if nothing to the texture, so this is a delicious dessert despite a doubtful disposition.
We’ve met Castro’s BBQ Shack and Filipino Food before at last year’s Gilroy Garlic Festival, and we appreciated that they embraced the theme of that festival. They did the same here, with asparagus lumpia added to their menu for the weekend. While we waited for our order, we were gifted a sample of their famous traditional lumpia with a spicy, tangy dipping sauce. We noticed the traditional lumpia was more popular than the asparagus lumpia, but that’s not to say that the asparagus lumpia wasn’t selling fast.
No offense to the volunteers making the deep fried asparagus over at the Alley because it was great, but Castro’s asparagus lumpia had them beat. A delicately thin and crispy wrapper was fried just right so there was little excess oil, and there was zero difficulty in biting through the fresh asparagus. Of the three dips for choosing we went with the ranch; maintaining a balance of herbs and tanginess, it was a good choice to highlight the celebrated vegetable.
We admit, we walked by many food stands because they either 1) didn’t provide something new and/or different, or 2) we had tried them before and they had nothing new and/or different to offer. But of all the festival, the one non-asparagus item that made us melt was Castro’s deep fried peanut butter and jelly sandwich. If we had to sum it up on one word, it would be “ohmmfggd.” Pretty sure we actually said that as we chewed the first bite. It was similar to a Monte Cristo sandwich in terms of texture and presentation. The creamy and savory peanut butter mellowed the bright sweetness of the strawberry jelly, and together they oozed between slices of standard white bread. Despite being deep fried, since you’d think that the bread would soak up excessive oil, it was not greasy. In fact, all we needed to wipe our fingers when done was the wax paper on which it was served.
Barring event-cancelling weather, we encourage you to attend the Asparagus Festival at least once in your life, although it’s likely something you’ll want to return to. This was its 29th year, so it is reliably a festival that can be made a tradition for families to enjoy through generations. All those in your company will have a good time, whether or not they like asparagus.
For three days, 129 non-profit organizations of San Joaquin County kept the 2013 Asparagus Festival exciting and active. After our experience yesterday, we were so happy to attend a festival today that heartily celebrated the food in the event’s name.
Asparagus is part of the lily family; if not harvested, eventually the tip of the stalk flowers. It is a liver protector, we learned, and an excellent hangover cure because of that – important information for many of the revelers out today.
Multiple stages with big bands (like Gin Blossoms!) and local talent, shopping vendors, children’s activities, dog agility competitions, paddleboats, and a sea lion exhibit were some of the non-asparagus things entertaining the masses, just like there was lots of non-asparagus food. But there was plenty of asparagus-loaded food, and we eagerly tried it all!
The Asparagus Festival takes up a HUGE part of Stockton, and we were lucky enough to find the last parking spot in a private lot that was close(ish) to an entrance. All the same, it required a little bit of walking to get to the booth to buy food and beverage tickets ($1 per ticket, and most items were 3-6 tickets). Not long after getting our first batch of tickets, and well before making our way to Asparagus Alley where all the non-profits were working to serve up asparagus fare, we found a stand of margarita machines. These weren’t typical, of course; why are we here again? Yes, we tried an asparagus margarita brought by The Margarita Man! Honestly the asparagus taste was very, very mild, as likely the alcohol helps to cancel out the chlorophyll. But it was refreshing and quenching on this hot day in the valley.
Sweet Delights, which normally does standard event food, made sure to bring asparagus items. The asparagus sliders were delightful, something that we would eat in real life if available. The slider patties were essentially like asparagus fritters or mini veggie burgers with an asparagus base. From being fried, the exterior was thin and crispy and the inside was a delicate texture. Ripe, sweet tomatoes and fresh mixed greens were simple toppings, sandwiched in little soft French rolls. An added bonus was the pesto aioli spread, a much better pairing than something like plain mayonnaise would have been.
Also from Sweet Delights, the asparagus gyro was served more like a pizza, even being sliced into four quarters. It started with a pesto base covered in gooey mozzarella, then more of the same ripe, sweet tomatoes, and grilled asparagus that maintained just a little bit of natural crunch. For how simple it was, it was a great vegetarian flatbread pizza.
Sweet Delights went above and beyond, even bringing asparagus lemonade. We never would have come upon this idea ourselves because it just doesn’t seem normal, but folks, it works. It was made with real lemons, wasn’t overly sweet, and had a nice, mild, asparagus aftertaste.
We made our way to Asparagus Alley, where groups of fraternity brothers, AT&T associates, and community members worked together under huge tents to accommodate the demand for asparagus. Asparagus burritos were made with steak and refried beans, served with a side of scratch salsa. The steak was freshly grilled, tender, and very flavorful; the asparagus was also grilled, and the beans were homemade. It was a really good burrito, and if in a taquería, it’s something that we would order.
Like a hoagie and with the same steak as the burrito, the asparagus sandwich was just as tasty. Instead of refried beans, it had grilled onions which were cooked just right. Throw some cheese on here, and it would be an excellent version of a Philly cheesesteak. August wanted more, but we had to be responsible and eat just a little so that we could try other things, as well.
The asparagus pasta was like the pasta salad August grew up with, except with asparagus. Fresh tomatoes, black olives, mushrooms, garlic, olive oil, lemon juice, cracked black pepper, and grilled asparagus made for a great mix that we’ll likely recreate at home. Hearty but light, refreshing and filling, this would be good for a side dish or a main entree.
Deep fried asparagus, being the most familiar item, was undoubtedly the most popular, and the event planners knew it would be so they planned accordingly. This is just a fraction of the area cordoned off for making batches of hot stalks.
So of course we tried some, but they fell a little flat. We don’t blame the volunteers, we know it’s tough working like they were, but to be honest we got to try a stalk fried in lumpia, gifted to us by the Margarita Man at the start of the day, and that was awesome.
Like the asparagus lemonade, asparagus strawberry shortcake is not something we thought we’d ever see. And also like the lemonade, it really works. The pound cake (yes, there was a little bit under there) was fresh and rich, and we only wish there was more of it. The strawberries were ripe and in a decadent syrup, the whipped cream was made with real cream, and blanched asparagus bits provided color and flavor. In Zach’s opinion, forget that it’s asparagus – it’s no different than adding a little mint to your dessert. Not saying that asparagus tastes like mint, but you get it. It’s a garnish, and it was good.
Finally, what everyone wants to know about: we present the asparagus ice cream. With a rich, creamy, vanilla base, this was light with asparagus flavor. Don’t let the deep green color fool you. It’s more of a novelty, but it was still yummy. There were no unhappy children eating this! If you have a hard time introducing your kids to new foods, this would be a great way to do it.
What a day! We barely scratched the surface, since we came on Day 3 and with only two of us, we couldn’t be in enough different places to catch it all. For example, it would have been nice to see the professional chef competition or the asparagus eating challenge, but now we know to plan for more time to dedicate next year. With lots of kids stuff, many crafts booths, and plenty of alcohol stands, there really was something for everyone here.