My father, may he rest in peace, was a champion Yankee gardener, as proud of his vegetable garden as he was of the flowerbeds that surrounded his bayside home. He did almost all the garden work himself as long as he was able–preparing beds and cold frames, planting, transplanting, weeding, dead-heading and harvesting–though there was a man to mow the lawns every week or so. Like most champion gardeners, he took special pride in the first springtime harvest, no matter what it was: first peas, first strawberries, first lettuce (served at table the old-fashioned way, plainly dressed with sugar and vinegar), and above all first asparagus.
He was also first up in the morning and out in the garden just after sunrise, snapping off the tender shoots of asparagus right at the base. Then for breakfast we’d have asparagus, cooked in my father’s unique and (fortunately) almost inimitable fashion, boiled or steamed until the poor, plump stalks were limp and gray with exhaustion, then piled atop a toasted slice of Wonder Bread, liberally spread with butter, and with more butter, melted now, pooled on top–along with the leftover juices, which of course turned the toast to soggy pap. My father was a much better gardener than he was a cook.
I was fully grown before I discovered the pleasures of underdone asparagus and I had to wait for my own garden patch before I understood that the best asparagus in the world, like the best peas, is consumed standing in the garden and contemplatively chewing on what you’ve harvested only seconds before. Come to think of it, because all fruits and vegetables begin to deteriorate in the normal course of things as soon as they’re harvested, don’t you get the fullest impact of all those vitamins, minerals and fiber when you eat food straight as it comes from the ground? I’m no raw foodist, but it does seem to me there’s an argument there for consideration.
To experience that, however, you really should have a small garden plot and the patience to wait at least three years from when you first dig a trench and plant the asparagus crowns to the time when you can garner a full harvest without damaging the young plants. If you have that plot and you have that patience, you are in for a springtime treat for many years thereafter. The rest of us will subsist on the asparagus we find in our markets, but be advised that, as with most fruits and vegetables, the closer the harvest is to the kitchen, the better the results will be. In other words, this is one of those areas where local is the answer to excellence. Asparagus imported from California, Mexico or other more distant places simply can’t hold a candle to locally grown and no more than a couple of days old when it reaches your kitchen.
In Italy, and perhaps in other parts of the world as well, wild asparagus is a
treasured spring treat and foraging it in the forests of Tuscany or Umbria is a rare and almost sacred craft that I confess I’ve never mastered. It cooks up in the same way as cultivated asparagus but has what I can only call a greener flavor. In the picture I’ve placed a measuring spoon (a tablespoon) on the left to give you an idea of the scale.
When it comes to cooking asparagus, there are so many options that a whole book could be written–and doubtless is in the works right now. I think of asparagus risotto, pureed asparagus soup (very nice made with cream and olive oil, no butter, and served cold with a liberal garnish of snipped chives), asparagus frittata (in which the blanched tips of asparagus are added to beaten eggs and continue cooking in the skillet), or asparagus lightly steamed, chopped and stirred into a sauce for pasta.
Best of all, of course, is first-of-the-season asparagus, steamed or gently sautéed, and served on its own, perhaps with a sauce or garnish (hollandaise? aioli? Mayonnaise with sriracha? lemon zest and grated parmigiano? tahini mixed with lemon juice? garlicky Lebanese toum bi zeit?) or piled on fresh buttered toast with a crispy fried egg on top. It’s called in Italy asparagi alla Bismarck although what Bismarck had to do with it is anyone’s guess.
I used to poach this early asparagus in simmering water but lately I’ve taken to pan roasting the spears in about a quarter-inch of olive oil with a sprinkle of salt and pepper. I roll the spears in the oil over medium heat until they are tender but not limp–soft enough to be pierced with the tip of a paring knife–and just starting to brown a little. You could also roast them in a 450º oven, first rolling them in oil, for 10 to 15 minutes. I like the texture, tender but with a bit of a bite.
Several years ago, my daughter, Sara, and I worked together on a cookbook, “The Four Seasons of Pasta,” which you can buy here: https://tinyurl.com/3rp8dcek . Of course, the spring season had to have asparagus pasta recipes, and so we set diligently to work. I’ve done tagliatelle for years with grilled or seared asparagus and sliced red onions, tossed in a creamy goat-cheese dressing, the asparagus just barely cooked so it still has a lot of crunch. But I was stopped in my tracks when Sara proposed a recipe that’s a favorite from her restaurant: pappardelle with long-cooked asparagus. “Long cooked?” I shuddered, remembering those breakfasts of soggy toast and limp, gray spears of asparagus.
She ignored my qualms and went ahead with the recipe. And you know what? It was terrific! The melting softness of the asparagus sauce, made from the stalks cut small and indeed overcooked, contrasts beautifully with the still-crisp flavors of the tips, which retain some of their brightness because they’re cooked for a short time. We made it again for dinner recently, with the first of the local asparagus, and once again marveled at how pasta can serve as a perfect foil for the first of spring’s offerings, whether peas or asparagus or possibly even strawberries.
Pappardelle with Long-cooked Asparagus and Basil
If you don’t have pappardelle, any other kind of long, broad pasta shape– fettucine, for instance, or tagliatelle–will do just as well. This comes together very quickly. Two pounds of asparagus and a pound of pasta will make 4 servings as a main course, or 6 as a primo.
- 2 pounds of fresh asparagus
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 large shallot or 1 small spring onion, finely minced (2 tablespoons)
- Sea salt and ground black pepper to taste
- ¼ cup heavy cream
- ½ cup loosely packed basil leaves, sliced
- About 1 pound (500 grams) pappardelle or similar pasta
- ½ cup freshly grated parmigiano reggiano or grana padana
Trim the asparagus by snapping off the bottoms, which break where the stem starts to get woody. Cut the stalks into 2-inch lengths, setting the tips aside.
Combine the butter and oil over medium heat in a saucepan or deep skillet. When the butter begins to foam, add the minced shallot (or spring onion) and the asparagus pieces, except for the tops, with a good pinch of salt and pepper to taste. Cook briskly until the shallots and asparagus take on a little color, 8 to 10 minutes. Turn the heat down and add the cream, 2 tablespoons of water, the reserved asparagus tips and half the basil leaves. Cover the pan and continue cooking, until the asparagus tips are just tender and pan liquid is reduced and thickened. Keep warm while the pasta cooks.
Meanwhile, have a large pot of salted water on the boil. When the asparagus sauce is ready, drop the pasta in the boiling water and cook it according to package directions, until it is al dente.
Have ready a warm serving bowl. Drain the pasta and toss in the bowl with the asparagus sauce, the remaining basil and the cheese. Add more black pepper to the top and serve immediately.
Note to cooks: Vary the flavors by using other fresh herbs in place of the basil–lovage, chervil, even plain, flat-leaf Italian parsley will be very good.