Asparagus, Galarraga remind us of good in Michigan

In this image, obviously Photoshopped by me, umpire Jim Joyce presents Armando Galarraga with a conciliatory bunch of freshly picked Michigan asparagus.

I sat outside with a cup of coffee last week, soaking in the early summer sun and pondering the greater meaning of the not-so-perfect perfect baseball game pitched by Detroit Tiger Armando Galarraga. For those of you unfamiliar with the baseball call heard ’round the world, Galarraga’s obviously perfect baseball game was denied him by an umpire’s bad call.

It was a situation in which the most stoic of baseball players at the very least would likely (and understandably) toss a mitt, kick some dirt or fling an obscenity at the umpire for the clearly bad call. Instead, Galarraga remained cool, calm and respectful. He showed a bit of disbelief when what should have been the last batter of the up-until-then perfect game was called safe, but he remained in control, the essence of good sportsmanship.

I thought about quick decisions, wrong decisions, the intersection of eye-hand and eye-brain coordination, and then my mind veered onto the subject that occupies so much of my time these days: Why do things in Michigan so suck? I took the umpire’s bad call and extrapolated it to paint the plight of Michigan, the state that can’t seem to catch a break.

The once-mighty Michigan, the “birthplace of the middle class,” has an unemployment rate hovering at 15 percent, the highest in the nation. The big local news last week in Livingston County, where we’ve long worn proudly the mantle of Michigan’s “fastest-growing” community, is that the $4-million-plus state-of-the-art birthing center built eight years ago is closing; there just aren’t enough babies being born there these days to keep it open.

The birthing center isn’t the only casualty of my state’s population decline: Michigan is bracing to lose some Congressional seats because so many people fled the state after the collapse of the auto industry.

For lots of us still here in Michigan — the unemployed, the under-employed and the perpetually worried and confused — times remain frighteningly tough. Not even Galarraga, who pitched the most talked about perfect game in baseball history, could catch an official, Major League Baseball-sanctioned break.

Then, a wonderful gift from my mother and sister after they visited the west side of the state made me forget the tough stuff for a bit. The gift? Several pounds of fresh asparagus and a half-gallon of cream-on-the-top milk from an Amish dairy.

As soon as I got my hands on the bags of vegetables and the glass bottle of milk with a $2 deposit, all I could think about was cream of asparagus soup.

We asparagus fans are happily in the midst of Michigan’s asparagus season, which runs mid-May through mid-July. The nutritionally spectacular asparagus is a $15 million a year industry in Michigan, ranking third in size in the nation. Grown from crowns buried about a foot deep in sandy, well-drained soil, asparagus is, in fact, a perfect crop for the western side of the state, which boasts miles and miles of beautiful, sandy shoreline along Lake Michigan.

To me, asparagus spears are little works of art, all amazing color, texture and taste. They’re also low in calories and sodium, and deliver a knockout punch of vitamins and minerals, like vitamin B6, potassium and thiamin; a serving of asparagus dishes up 60 percent of the recommended daily intake of the all-important folic acid.

There’s also that distinctive smell in your urine after you’ve consumed any significant amount of the vegetable. The hard-to-miss odor is formed as the asparagus is digested, its beneficial amino acids broken down into health-enhancing pieces. Stinky pee is but a small price to pay for the great stuff delivered by the vegetable.

You can stir-fry, blanch, bake and roast asparagus. I am currently crazy-in-love with cream of asparagus soup. Savoring a bowl of the easy-to-make soup made from my local, fresh asparagus and the cream spooned from my Amish milk put me in a positive groove. As I swirled fresh gratings of Romano cheese into the bowl of lovely green soup, I gave thanks for all the good things we still have here, like asparagus and the amazing, gracious, über-sportsmanship of the handsome Armando Galarraga, who turned a bad call into one of the greatest baseball stories ever.

Quick-and-easy cream of asparagus soup

3 pounds of fresh asparagus, rinsed and trimmed

4 cups chicken broth (I used a 32-ounce container of organic chicken broth)

2 onions

2 tablespoons butter

1 tablespoon olive oil

pinch sea salt

¼ cup cream

Heat the olive oil in a large, heavy pot. When the oil starts to shimmer, add 1 tablespoon butter. When the butter is melted and starts to pop, add the onions, stirring until the onions are translucent. Add the asparagus; stir and cook for 10 minutes.

Add the chicken broth and sea salt and bring it all to a boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer, cover the pot and let the soup cook for 30 minutes.

When the soup is done cooking, remove the pot from the stove. Using a blender stick, puree the soup to your liking. I wear one of those hot-pad gloves that extend up my arm when I puree it, just in case the hot soup splatters. When you’re done, stir in the last tablespoon of butter and the cream; stir until the soup is blended well and lightens in color.

Ladle the soup into bowls and top with grated cheese (I like Romano). Enjoy with a glass of wine and crusty roll.

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