When did asparagus start to look like it grew up down creek from the leaky nuke plant? Once upon a time all bundles of asparagus resembled packs of Ticonderoga #2’s, except they were green instead of school bus yellow, and tipped with terminal buds instead of pink erasers. And thin. Thinner than pencils. Not these Asparagus with Horseradish Cream, Chervil and Honey. These guys are hefty, but by today’s standards they’re mid-size. Larger examples abound, at least at our local WFM. Blame France–they started it. A handful of Februaries ago, in a more innocent age of asparagus, I was strolling through the open air market near Bastille with a Parisian friend when she paused before a box of giant asparagus, not yet widespread in the US. Gargantuan and lavender. She pincered a particularly fat one with two fingers, cocked an eyebrow upward as she examined it and then said, “C’est genial, ceci.” Nice, this one. Nice embraces a variety of meanings, but for purposes of this post I’m going to take it to mean delicious. After eating some I had to agree and since then, I’ve grown to prefer big asparagus. Once you get past the, uh, big factor there’s more there there, more asparagus flavor. Thin asparagus are the vegetable analog to spare ribs. Crazy delicious, but you need to eat a wheelbarrow of them before you cry, “Enough!” With the new Schwarzenegger stalks the crazy delicious remains, but embodied in fewer stalks to snap and peel (if you’re the snapping-peeling type) and, since asparagus are finger food, sigh, less opportunity to dribble sauce down your front.
Last week Jody and I were treated to a delicious dish of broiled polenta with mushrooms at the home of friends and we immediately began thinking about a spring variation. Our first impulse, topping it with chicory and fava beans, didn’t work out because fresh favas – or a good substitute – aren’t in stores yet. What is available now is asparagus – and pancetta, and for a new wrinkle on the cheese, Aged Gouda.
Here’s the scene: working-class neighborhood, first house, first back yard, first patio. Radical move against the local pave-the-yard-build-a-grape-arbor esthetic. We christened the patio’s finish by inviting neighbors Pam and Chris to join us for Grilled Spring Onions with Romesco. At the time, almost two decades ago, I’d heard of Romesco, the thick Catalan sauce based on roasted red peppers and nuts, but not grilled spring onions, which my wife assured me was a big deal in Barcelona. She was right. The Calçotada is a month-long Barcelonan lovefest to calçots, spring onions, which are then grilled and slathered with Romesco. Imagine a sloppy Falstaffian bender lasting most of April, involving untold quantities of red wine and masses of fragrant grilled onions wrapped in newspapers or served in inverted clay roofing tiles and eaten with your hands. Uh-huh, who isn’t down for that?
We eat A LOT of asparagus. I see it on sale, buy an armful, steam it lightly, then use it to fill out other things–steel-cut oats and an egg, a lunch salad with cannelloni beans, a way to gussy up a croque monsieur so I don’t feel like Lonely Guy eating grilled cheese in an empty house. But Roasted Asparagus with Pistachio Pesto is something else altogether. You set this platter in front of friends who aren’t afraid of getting a little messy when everyone’s standing around in the kitchen with a beer (my preference with asparagus, by the way)* or glass of wine, carrying on while you cook. Serious finger food.