The other day, as I was reading Pliny the Elder’s “The Natural History” (yeah, I know …), I came across what he wrote in praise of the asparagus of Ravenna, Italy, especially how large it was—“when highly-manured, weighing three pounds”—in contradistinction to how we might seek out pencil-thin stalks for our cooking.
And none, um, “highly-manured.”
What is it with this wondrous harbinger of spring that we have prized it for millennia and eat it so ravenously?
It’s botanical name, asparagus officinalis, suggests one reason. In ancient days, the “officina” was that part of a monastery where the monks stored medicines. “Eat your asparagus” meant “Take your meds.”
Asparagus isn’t inexpensive, even when abundant, as it is in this season, because it is difficult to cultivate. It grows in and on mounds of soil that are not productive for two years. It then enjoys solid growth for another two years, and then flags in output for a final two years. In other words, an asparagus farmer works about half time for nothing. It’s like selling Christmas trees. (Plus it must be hand-harvested.)
Germans, Belgians, and many French enjoy it white, rather than green, achieved by preventing the shoots from seeing sunlight out of their mounds (the soil is hand-packed, tall, over them). I remember once downing an entire plateful of “spargal”—its German name—steamed and slathered with no more than salt and drawn butter and burping happily for hours.
Asparagus is commonly eaten cooked, but especially the tender tips may be eaten raw. I lightly peel the bottom half of green or purple asparagus stems—I don’t care how thick or thin they are; all of them—before cooking them.
Here are five mini-recipes for preparing asparagus. One element that I always find works well with asparagus is something tart or acidic—lemon juice, for example—as a foil to its native bitterness.
In parchment paper packets with salmon: Make a sealed packet, out of parchment paper or aluminum foil, of a filet of salmon, a quarter bunch of asparagus, a few strips of white of leek, 1 teaspoon extra virgin olive oil, grinds of black pepper, a pinch of kosher salt, and sprinklings of any fresh green herb of your liking (dill, thyme, flat leaf parsley, etc.). Bake on a sheet in a preheated 400-degree oven for 10 minutes. Put the packet on a plate for serving; the aromas on opening are nearly the best part.
In a risotto: Make a standard risotto, using vegetable stock. A couple of minutes before it is finished, for every cup of rice with which you started, add 1 pound of asparagus cut into 2-inch pieces. Then finish, stirring, with the zest of a small lemon, its juice, 1/2 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley leaves, and 1/2 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.
As a stir-fry with spiced beef and mushrooms: Marinate for an hour 1/2 pound of New York strip steak, sliced thinly, in 2 tablespoons each orange juice and soy sauce, 1 tablespoon chili paste, 3 sliced scallions (no dark green parts), 3 cloves minced garlic, and 1 teaspoon minced ginger. Stir-fry in an oiled wok or skillet, in batches and for 4 minutes per batch, with 1 pound asparagus cut into 2-inch pieces and 1/2 pound cleaned and sliced mushrooms.
Roasted: In a preheated 425-degree oven, roast on baking sheets and for 12-15 minutes, 2 pounds cleaned and trimmed asparagus tossed with 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes and almost too much kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper. Serve with squeezes of lemon juice.
With pasta and eggs: Prepare your favorite long-form pasta (spaghetti, linguine, or the like). About 2 minutes before it is finished, add to the boiling water 1 pound asparagus, trimmed and cut in half and lengthwise into long strips. Drain, reserving 1 cup cooking water, and return to the pot with 1/4 cup unsalted butter or ghee and 1/2 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, adding enough reserved water to make a sauce. Top each serving with a poached egg and freshly ground black pepper.
Some notes on wine and asparagus: Eating asparagus is about as close as we get to dine as do the ruminants, most hoofed animals and that great natural lawn mower, the sheep. Asparagus is a grass, after all; just take a good look at it. Unlike the cow, however, we get to enjoy wine with our asparagus—but there’s the rub.
Asparagus is difficult for wine in two ways. It’s natively bitter, first of all, and all foods bitter are hard on wine. Moreover, it’s very high in the chemicals phosphorous and the sulphurous compound methyl mercaptan, neither a friend to wine (or the, er, urinary tract). Both chemicals can interact with wine to cause a tinny, metallic taste on the palate.
So what wines to enjoy with asparagus? Take a cue from the Germans, who each spring devour their beloved spargal with their crisp, refreshing, high-acid Rieslings and Sylvaners.
The wines to favor with asparagus, by and large, are these: high in acidity, either white or red (but white wins over red, as a rule; low in alcohol; and very fresh and young. Such include those Germans; northern Italian whites such as Arneis or Soave; Spanish Albariño; dry and medium-dry Vouvray or Muscadet from the Loire; some Pinot Noirs from cooler climates (Oregon, Burgundy); South African Steen (that country’s word for Chenin Blanc); top-notch Italian Verdicchio or Orvieto; good Italian Barbera; good Gamay (from America or Beaujolais); Piemontese Grignolino; and many Rioja reds.
Stay away from blockbuster or overly manipulated, oaky, high-alcohol wines (many Chardonnays, Cabernet Sauvignons, Syrahs and Merlots). They truly will taste awful with asparagus.
Bill St. John has written and taught about restaurants, food, cooking and wine for more than 40 years, locally for Rocky Mountain News, The Denver Post and KCNC-TV Channel 4, nationally for Chicago Tribune Newspapers and Wine & Spirits magazine. The Denver native lives in his hometown. Contact Bill at email@example.com