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.
Today is August’s birthday! She told all her students that her favorite chocolate candy is peanut butter cups (non-chocolate is gummy peach rings). With 147 students, she got lots of peanut butter cups! Last year, one of them brought her a peanut butter cake, and she was hooked. Likely a new tradition now, she asked Zach to make her a peanut butter cake for her birthday today. This recipe and its proportions, even for the frosting, are appropriate for a triple layer 9″ cake or 24 cupcakes, and if you happen to have chocolate peanut butter cups around the house, this is a creative way to put them to use.
• For the cake:
2 1/4 cups of cake flour
1 1/4 cups of vanilla’d sugar
1 cup of buttermilk
1 cup of creamy natural peanut butter
1/2 cup of butter
2 tsp. of vanilla extract
1 1/4 tsp. of baking soda
1 tsp. of baking powder
Nonstick cooking spray (and paper muffin cups if making cupcakes)
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. If making a cake, spray three 9″ round pans with nonstick spray; if making cupcakes, line two muffin tins with muffin cups and lightly spray with nonstick spray. Sift together the flour, baking soda, and baking powder; set aside. Mix together the sugar, peanut butter, and butter with a hand mixer until creamy and combined, about 2 minutes. Add the eggs, one at a time, and the vanilla extract, mixing for an additional 2 minutes. While mixing, alternately add the flour mixture and the buttermilk as such: 1/3 of the flour, half of the buttermilk, 1/3 of the flour, the rest of the buttermilk, the rest of the flour; it is important not to over-mix during the phase, because you don’t want to end up with bread. Pour the batter evenly into the three round pans, or with an ice cream scoop, portion out the batter into the 24 muffin cups. Bake the large rounds for 22-25 minutes; cupcakes bake for 18-20 minutes. Test for doneness by inserting a toothpick – if it comes out clean, it’s done. Let cool before frosting.
• For the frosting:
3 cups of powdered sugar
1 cup of creamy natural peanut butter
8 oz. of cream cheese at room temperature
1/3 cup of heavy whipping cream
2 tsp. of vanilla extract
With a hand mixer, combine the peanut butter and cream cheese until fully blended. Add the cream and vanilla, and mix for another minute. Add the powdered sugar 1 cup at a time, blending well in between adding each cup. Once the last cup is fully incorporated, mix for another 3 minutes. For easy piping, fill a pastry bag fitted with whatever tip you want (but larger would be easier) and pipe to your heart’s content.
Optional garnish: cut several chocolate peanut butter cups into quarters and place on top of the frosting.
Second optional garnish: top with honey roasted peanuts.
Third optional garnish: stripe with dark chocolate.