This post originally appeared in the Bloomington Herald Times on May 3, 2006
Benjamin Franklin had something to say about asparagus, as he did about so many things: “A few stems of Asparagus eaten, shall give our Urine a Disagreeable Odour,” he wrote in 1781, in a discourse on ways to make noxious bodily discharges smell “agreable as Perfumes.”
The odor he noted is disagreeable indeed, related as it is to the sulfur-like compound that gives skunks their oh-so distinctive aroma. It is a byproduct of metabolizing the chemicals in asparagus, and, interestingly, the production of that odor, and the ability to smell it, is a trait not shared by everyone in the population.
Consequently there is a 60 percent chance that you have no idea what I am talking about, and are only grossed out that I am beginning a food column talking about the smell of urine. If you are one of the genetically selected, however, you may always have wondered, and now you know. As to why you were chosen, I cannot say, but you are in good company with Ben and me.
Smelly byproducts or not, there is much about asparagus to love. It is an early harbinger of spring, and tastes like the season itself – earthy, green, fresh and tender. As soon as it is harvested, though, its delicate flavor starts to deteriorate; if all you’ve ever had is the imported asparagus most of us buy at the grocery store then you are missing out on something special.
Grassy and sweet, just-picked asparagus is a revelation. We get early notice at our house of the first asparagus up in spring because 10 years ago, in a fit of irrational spring exuberance, we planted lots of it. You can grow asparagus from seed, but more commonly you plant “crowns,” which then send up shoots regularly for decades.
Fifty crowns would be sufficient to feed a family of six, the seed catalog told us. There were just two of us in our household, but we loved asparagus. Fifty crowns it was.
It took back-breaking work and heart-breaking patience. We double dug the trenches, set the crowns and then waited a couple of years before we could fully harvest our crop. Now, every spring, we pick the juicy green stalks to our hearts content between April and May.
You can do a lot with asparagus, but when it is fresh and tender it is always most delicious when you do very little. A member of the lily family (like garlic and onions), it is good steamed, sauteed, grilled and roasted, but however you cook it, do it at high temperatures for a short time. When the ancient Romans, who loved the vegetable, wanted something done quickly, they said it should be done “in less time than it takes to cook asparagus.” That means fast.
Sometimes I don’t cook it at all, snacking on asparagus while I am working in the garden, but when I have the patience to bring it indoors, I throw it in a hot oven with some good olive oil and salt until it sizzles and begins to caramelize, and then I drizzle it with a light vinaigrette. Or I saute it fast and hot in butter, and just add salt and pepper. Either way, it is blissful eating, a treat made more savory by the knowledge that it is only available for such a short time. A few weeks of asparagus pee is a small price to pay for the divine taste of spring.
You can buy fresh local asparagus now at the Bloomington Community Farmers’ Market, but get there early. Appropriately enough, it goes quickly.
Curly Pasta with Sauteed Aspargus
This pasta dish is as easy as it can be – light and full of spring – but it depends on great ingredients. Use the freshest asparagus and the best butter and cheese you can find.
1 1/2 pound asparagus
1 pound cavatappi or other curly macaroni
1/2 stick unsalted butter
Splash of good balsamic vinegar
1/2 cup freshly grated parmigiano reggiano cheese, plus additional for passing
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
Wash and trim the asparagus. Snap off the tough ends and slice on the diagonal into 3-inch lengths.
Melt the butter in a saute pan over medium high heat. Add asparagus and cook quickly over medium-high heat. Butter can brown, but do not allow it to burn. Asparagus should be tender, but firm to the bite, and slightly caramelized. If your pan is small, do this in two steps to allow asparagus to cook and brown evenly. Salt and pepper to taste and add a splash of vinegar.
Meanwhile, cook pasta according to package directions until cooked, but still al dente. Drain. Toss with asparagus and 1/2 cup grated cheese. Adjust seasonings. Serve warm in shallow pasta bowls. Pass additional cheese.
Serves six as a first course, four as a main course.
This is another totally simple recipe that captures the wonderful fresh, green taste of the asparagus. Again, ingredients are key. Use fresh asparagus and a lovely, grassy olive oil.
1 lb asparagus, washed and dried with tough ends snapped off
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
Your favorite vinegar (for this, mine are slightly sweet-champagne. white wine, or white balsamic)
Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Lay asparagus out on baking sheets and drizzle all over with olive oil. Rub each stalk so that it is well coated. Sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste.
Roast asparagus until tender, but still slightly firm to the tooth. It will be slightly withered and caramelized, but not mushy. Usually this takes about 5-15 minutes, depending on your oven temperature and your taste.
Remove from oven.
Adjust seasonings; toss with several teaspoons of vinegar, to taste. Serve warm or at room temperature.