Asparagus

This post originally appeared in the Bloomington Herald Times on May 3, 2006

Asparagus
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.

Asparagus_003_copy
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 Asparagus

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.

Roasted Asparagus

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

Olive oil

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.

Serves four.

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