Signs of Spring: Asparagus

All photographs by The Paupered Chef

In my neighborhood in Brooklyn last weekend, people began to stick their heads out of their doors and windows. They went out nose first, suspicious and hopeful, like dogs. The weather reports, pipelined in from or cable television, were reporting warm weather. By mid-morning it was confirmed. People were walking their pets up and down the sidewalks, and the cafe on the corner had a chalkboard sign outside with a tentative joke about sunshine. On Friday, the high reported in my ZIP code was 34, just enough to melt the snow so it would turn to slick ice overnight. By early afternoon Saturday, the temperature had reached 56 degrees.

When there is a warm day in March, spring recipes begin to seem practical. Asparagus, spring’s tender manifestation, has indeed been showing up in produce markets—not gray and woody, but green and flexible.

During the peak hours of its life, asparagus is one of the fastest growing plants around. Underground is the "crown" of the plant, a fibrous root that must develop for three years before it sends up spears for about six weeks in a season. The slowest plants are harvested once a week; a particularly impressive sort requires harvesting every 24 hours, a window of time during which it will sprout spears reaching 10 inches. As the season dwindles, the spears become gradually thinner, and a farmer or gardener must avoid harvesting them. These will grow into tall, fleecy ferns that manufacture carbohydrates and send them down to the crowns to fortify them for the following year. An asparagus crown can continue growing stalks and ferns for two decades. Unlike most people assume, the thinner asparagus stalks do not mean better taste or texture—the opposite is in fact true. Thicker stalks are more flavorful and have more tenderness in proportion to the amount of skin. They simply need to be peeled, starting just under the head.

Every year in Stockton, California, asparagus enthusiasts gather in late April to participate in the Great Spear-it Run, ride the AsparaBus, and throw asparagus as far as possible in a field (the Spear-Throwing competition). This year many will attend the Deep-Fried Asparagus Eating Competition, in which competitive eater Sonya Thomas, who won two years ago (5.7 pounds in 10 minutes), will attempt to win back her title from last year's surprise upset by Joey Chesnutt (6.3 pounds in 11.5 minutes). The crowds as a whole will consume 40,000 pounds of asparagus, sometimes cut the day of, which improves the taste dramatically—like a baguette with its end sliced off, Asparagus stalks rapidly become stale and woody from the base up soon after harvesting.

There’s only one place I turn when a vegetable is in season and I don’t want to bury it in a dish under sauces and spices. It’s a slim white paperback with festive drawings in colored pencil on the cover, including a bowl of pasta, eight basil leaves, two chili peppers, five plum tomatoes, six raviolis, four pieces of penne pasta, and two rolled-up balls of fresh spaghetti. There isn’t a single photograph in the book. The woman who wrote it has spent years living, eating, and cooking in Italy, and in it she has collected 100 pasta recipes of creativity and simplicity, the two hallmarks of a good pasta dish. In the introduction, she explains frankly. “Italians eat pasta every day and they are not a people amused by monotony. Pasta has to appear in many guises to continue to arouse applause.”

The book is organized by vegetables—there are only a few pages of meat dishes near the end. When something is in season, you simply look it up, and there before you are three or four options with colored-pencil drawings. When the guy at your farmers' market is exclaiming about his short season of turnip tops, urging you to buy now, serve them with orrechiette and chile peppers. Fava beans appearing in large quantities at the grocer? They pair well with farfalle pasta, bacon, and a sweet-sour combination of wine vinegar and sugar.

The book is called, simply, The Top One Hundred Pasta Sauces. The woman who wrote is Diana Seed. Like most of the recipes in the book, the ingredients can be ready in the time it takes to boil water and cook the pasta. Here's one for asparagus.

Tagliatelle with Asparagus Sauce

asparagus - 2 (by bcroyer)

Start a large pot of water for the pasta. Take 1 pound asparagus, ends snapped gently off (take hold of the base and the tip, and slowly bend the tip down. It will be flexible and tender until a certain point. Break it off where it gets tough and woody), and place in a wide pan.

Cover with boiling water and salt, and cook 5 to 8 minutes or until the stalks are just underdone, with bite—they’ll finish in the sauce. Drain and cover with cold water, drain again and cut into 3/4-inch lengths.

asparagus - 3 (by bcroyer)Melt 1 stick unsalted butter in a large saucepan, and add 1 slice stale white bread, chopped into large breadcrumbs; cook 2 minutes. Add 1 cup heavy cream and 1/4 cup chicken stock to the pot; bring to a simmer. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Cook 1 pound tagliatelle pasta, fresh if possible, and, with 3 or 4 minutes cooking time remaining, add asparagus to saucepan. Drain cooked pasta, and add to sauce, tossing to combine. Add 1/2 cup grated fontina, Gruyère, or Emmental cheese. Toss until melted; serve immediately.