The Asparagus of Spring

Asparagus can be white if it’s from Germany or purple if it’s from Italy. But for most of us, the long, tapered stalks that announce the arrival of spring are always a delicate green. For many diners, as for many chefs and home cooks, nothing is “more spring” than asparagus.

We’ve always loved the stuff. Its taste is as delicate as its texture once it’s been steamed, grilled or roasted, all methods that have their champions. Used to produce steam, the microwave works too.  Truth is, any combination of these methods can work perfectly – once you master the art of trimming, peeling and cooking the stalks to crisp-tender. Too little and you’re chewing wood. Too much and you’re eating mushy canned peas. The magic of asparagus is all in its texture.

By the time Apicus wrote nice things about asparagus in Rome of the 3rd century BC, it already had not one but two great empires under its belt. The Egyptians of the Pharaohs adored eating asparagus, as they indicated in a frieze showing it as an offering to their gods. It was the ancient Greeks who finally launched its current name, calling it “asparagos.”

The Romans, especially those lovers of exotic food pleasures known as the Epicureans, Latinized the Greek word as asparagus, and the game was afoot. The Emperor Augustus created his own “Asparagus Fleet” for hauling the vegetable across seas, and also coined the popular Roman phrase “faster than cooking asparagus,” meaning very quickly. Even back then, nobody wanted asparagus that was mushy from cooking too long.

The French were fans by 1469 (Madame de Pompadour used to call the tender ends “love tips”), followed by the English by 1538 and the Germans by 1542. Depending on who is telling the tale, the love of asparagus reached the British colonies in America in either the late 18th or the early 19th century. It was certainly widely known everywhere for certain before the Civil War.

The thing about asparagus: some people never try to use it in a real recipe, not least because they love it cooked one way (steamed, roasted or grilled) and never try it any other. Minimalists like either melted butter or hollandaise spooned over the top, and no force on earth can push them in a new direction. Still, the Italians have long looked to asparagus and other vegetables as a great way to add taste and texture to any pasta, among other staples.

Some admirers have come around to the idea of non-green asparagus. German restaurants sometimes look to the old country, where stalks remain white when they are intentionally grown underground, and schedule annual “white asparagus festivals” in celebration. The purple asparagus from the Italian region of Albenga – known appropriately as Violetto d’Albenga – finds its way into more and more U.S. supermarkets at the start of each spring season.

China has long been the world’s largest grower of asparagus, with Peru coming in second. California is the largest American grower, as it is for so many vegetables and fruits, followed by Washington and Michigan. Wherever you grow and wherever you live, as soon as spring shows up there, make sure asparagus shows up with it.

PAPPARDELLE WITH SAUSAGE, ASPARAGUS & FETA

Many dishes found in both Greece and Italy go in the same direction, or parallel each other in delicious, unexpected ways. Here’s a simple quick pasta dish that combines best elements from both glorious cuisines. The fresh asparagus spread across the top is the finest way we can think of to announce that spring is indeed here.

1 (8.8 ounce) package dried pappardelle egg noodles

4 lamb or sweet Italian sausages, cut bite-size

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

1 can cannellini beans with liquid

1 tablespoon lemon pepper

1 teaspoon garlic powder

1 teaspoon dried parsley flakes

1 teaspoon Greek or Italian seasoning

½ jar Mom’s Spaghetti Sauce with Whole Garlic & Fresh Basil

12-15 stalks fresh asparagus, cleaned and cut bite-size

1 cup chicken broth

Salt and black pepper to taste

1 cup crumbled feta cheese

Cook the pappardelle in boiling salted water until al dente, about 8 minutes. Strain. Cook the sausages completely in the olive oil in a large pan. Then add the cannellini beans with liquid (don’t add additional salt until you taste at the end). Add the lemon pepper, garlic powder, parsley and seasoning. Stir in the Mom’s sauce. In a separate pan with a little olive oil, lightly caramelize the asparagus, add the chicken bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 2 minutes. Add the strained pappardelle and any remaining chicken broth to the sausage-bean mixture and heat through. Season to taste with salt and pepper, if needed. Transfer to a serving platter and top with asparagus and feta cheese. Serves 8.      

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