Is there a vegetable more emblematic of spring than the slender asparagus? Today we can get them in supermarkets at any time of year, but I first experienced the true wonder of asparagus, living in the hills of western Massachusetts on a farm that had its very own asparagus patch. After the long, cold winters, the many feet of snow blanketing the back field would finally melt enough to expose the wet, mineral-smelling earth below that had spent months resting and rejuvenating in the cold dark. Before anything else stirred, the pointy heads of the asparagus would come popping up. They literally spearheaded spring! This was an event of great excitement for us — and not one to be celebrated indoors.
We grabbed a sharp knife, the big cast-iron skillet, a stick of butter and a lemon from the kitchen, and headed out back. An armful of firewood got a nice fire going in the well-used pit next to the garden. Now it was time to choose the biggest spears, each one with its own bumpy, knobby personality, ready for eating — one, two, three — into the pan they went with a chunk of butter and onto the fire. At this point it was hard to wait the few minutes it took for them to cook, but we managed, slicing the lemon on a nearby log. Then it was time! A few squirts of lemon, and we could start pulling the tender, drooping spears out of the pan with our fingers.
We ate Spring. All the deep, power of the Winter, coiled into those brave, exuberant, wildly green stalks. There were never enough, you always wanted more, more, more — and we continued to troop out to the garden over the coming days, eagerly slurping up every last bright green nubbin as it got tall enough to eat. And as the asparagus faded, the rest of spring woke up and unfolded — perhaps more showy, more prolific, but there is something about those first harbingers of Spring that I love more than anything. For the moment I am limited to supermarket asparagus. All uniform and straight, same girth, same color … a bit anemic — their spirits speak of automated sameness, shipping crates and profit margins. But as I pop them in the oven, I am back once again in the chilly field still smelling of the snow in the woods and the mud underfoot, grabbing green spears that taste of wood smoke.
- One to two bunches asparagus, depending on how many hungry people you have
- Olive oil
- Garlic cloves (as many as you want)
- A lemon — or Balsamic vinegar is very nice too
- 1-2 tablespoons butter, depending on how much asparagus you have
- Optional — a few sun-dried tomatoes packed in oil or a few tablespoons capers
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Trim the bottom inch or so off your asparagus, and mince garlic cloves. In a large sheet pan or a cookie tray with a rim, toss the asparagus and garlic with enough olive oil to coat. If you’re using sun-dried tomatoes, dice and add them now too. Place in the oven, and check after 10 minutes. You want the spears to be still bright green — tender but still crunchy. The cooking time will vary depending on how thick your asparagus are. They’re easy to overcook — definitely not more than 15 minutes required. I overdid my batch a bit today because I got too absorbed in writing … When they come out, plop in a dab of butter and squeeze lemon or a couple splashes of balsamic over the top, toss, and taste for salt. Add a few capers or some red pepper flakes for zing if you want. Enjoy! ps… Eat with fingers.