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Asparagus Season!

Asparagus Season!

Cynthia Houng | Chef's Blade

Asparagus season is short. The thin, delicate stalks soon mature, and develop a tough exterior and woody core. Here in California, the season starts in late March, and is over by mid-April. Early-season asparagus is easy to prepare — just toss it in an iron skillet with a bit of olive oil (and maybe a few pieces of bacon, for something decadent), and season with salt and pepper.

As the asparagus ages, it loses its sugar and develops a stronger, more pronounced “asparagus” flavor. Then, it’s time to apply some creativity.

I never paid much attention to asparagus until I experienced “spargel saison” in Austria and the South Tyrol. Spring asparagus, through my childhood, was simply a given, something that appeared on the table in early spring and disappeared a few weeks later, replaced by other vegetables. Asparagus typically appeared on our table as a simple stir-fry — young stalks cooked quickly, over high heat, with slivers of pork belly and a clove of crushed garlic.

In Austria (and neighboring regions), asparagus is something to be noticed and celebrated. The mood is festive — for asparagus heralds spring, closing the chapter on a long, cold, and often wet, winter. Asparagus season starts later in Europe–perhaps due to the northern latitude. The first asparagus shoots appear on the market in late May or early June.

We arrived in Fulpmes, a small town just outside of Innsbruck, in late May. The asparagus season was in full swing, and we ate asparagus for lunch and dinner. In retrospect, I am a bit surprised that we didn’t have asparagus for breakfast as well, though perhaps I should be thankful. (We had fresh milk and farm eggs for breakfast instead, with homemade jam and fresh brown rolls.) While in Austria, we had green asparagus, white asparagus, asparagus lightly blanched in a salad, asparagus dressed with olive oil, asparagus in soup/ And when we moved south to the part of the Tyrol included in present-day Italy, we encountered more asparagus. It starred in festivals, in culinary contests, in daily specials. Perhaps it was Stockholm Syndrome, but, by the end of our trip, we found ourselves in love with asparagus.

Today, it’s enough for one to look at the other and mention “spargel,” the German word for asparagus, to conjure the spectrum of asparagus-related dishes that we consumed that spring.

If you should find a bunch of tender young asparagus at your local green market, try the pasta recipe on the next page. While not a perfect recreation of the Tyrolean dishes that capture our hearts, it does bring a bit of the Dolomites to California. This recipe uses green asparagus, instead of the white spargel that is so popular in Europe.

For Cynthia’s version of the Tyrolean pasta and asparagus dish, to the next page >>