“When spring came, even the false spring, there were no problems except where to be happiest. The only thing that could spoil a day was people and if you could keep from making engagements, each day had no limits. People were always the limiters of happiness except for the very few that were as good as spring itself.”Ernest Hemingway – A Moveable Feast
When I was young I was assured the appearance of a robin heralded spring. This was Midwest America, and I have to say I never noticed a concrete connection. I saw redbreasts hopping across February snow, but also parched and dying grass of July afternoons. And learning that its Latin name was ‘Turdus Migratorius’ just made a 12-year-old giggle. But here in France, a more reliable harbinger of all things vernal, of pushing through frost and sun-stretched days is the tacitly anticipated appearance in the marché of the first asparagus of the season.
Passing an acquaintance returning from the market,
“Il y a des asperges!”
“Ah, oui? Vraiment? Asperge?
“Ah…C’est printemps, alors…”
The marché is something we’ve come to rely on year ‘round – in rain, in snow, in summer swelter…but a marché de printemps is unfailingly a giddy, kid-in-a-candy-store event. It embraces, embodies, and celebrates seasonality. And there is seasonality year ‘round – mushrooms sprout like, well themselves, in November, scallops pile up glorious and glistening in December, Banon cheese has its window in July and August – but in Spring…the vegetable sellers, the primeurs – a solid bet even in darkest winter for your fruit and veg fix – in Spring they literally become overflowing cornucopias of wonder. And the bellwether is asparagus. Sometime in early March the dark green of Moroccan avocados and midnight purple of Spanish aubergines (both take their bow sometime in February) give way to the pale green shoots of Asparagus Officinalus (and in the marché des fleurs, the lily, to which it is related). Pencil thin bundles, or stalks as thick as a pool cue, in all price ranges – and early in the season it pays to pay. There is a time for all things, and the taste of promise and potential, of shaking off shawling snows and welcoming the light is the melting crunch and bittersweet tang of spring asparagus.
This recipe has long been a family favorite. The kids will eat it, and I’m equally comfortable whipping it up for guests. It has a luxurious feel to it, rich and satisfying. Basically, it involves two techniques that are a little out of the ordinary – using the starchy pasta cooking liquid to thicken the sauce, and treating pasta like risotto, slowly incorporating a highly seasoned sauce directly into the cooking process, allowing the flavors to penetrate and enrich the pasta itself. I like to use gemelli, it lends substance, and a bit of ‘tooth’, as well as pairing well with the shape of the asparagus tips. Any small shape will do, though…penne, oriecchette, etc.
1 – 2 lbs (1kg) Fresh Asparagus
4-5 cloves Garlic
1/2 cup Parmesan cheese (or ¼ cup nutritional yeast if going vegan)
½ cup Fresh Parsley, chopped fine
1 lb (500g) Gemelli Pastsa (or penne, or cavatappi, or orecchiette, or…)
Zest of one lemon, juice reserved
Salt and pepper to taste
½ cup Pignoli (optional, but really good)
Preheat the oven to 425°F (220°C). Cut off the root ends of the asparagus, you can leave a little of the whiter shaft, just get rid of the tougher, stringy ends. Toss with olive oil, salt and pepper, arrange in a single layer on a baking sheet, and roast for @ 15 minutes, or until there’s a bit of browning at the tips and edges. While it roasts, bring a large pot of well-salted (toss in at least a Tblsp or two) water to a boil. Cook the pasta for @ half the recommended cooking time, @ 4-5 minutes for gemelli/penne, check any others. Drain, but reserve @ 3 cups (700ml) of the starchy cooking liquid. When the asparagus is done, remove from oven, let cool slightly, and chop into 1” (2.5cm) chunks, reserving the tips in a separate pile. Put the cut up shafts (sans tips) into a blender, along with the garlic, lemon zest, 2 Tblsp of lemon juice, a couple of glugs of olive oil, and ½ cup of pasta water. Blend until smooth (careful – the hot pasta water could cause the mix to sort of…explode. Pulse, pulse, pulse…then blend). Pour the drained pasta and blended sauce back into the large stock pot with 1 ½ cups (350ml) pasta water, simmer over medium heat, stirring occasionally until the lquid is mostly absorbed and the pasta is al dente. Add more reserved water if necessary. While simmering, toast the pignoli over low heat in a skillet until lightly browned. Add the parmesan to the pasta mixture, along with the reserved asparagus tips and parsley, stir to blend. Salt and pepper to taste. Serve immediately, topped with toasted pignoli. Also good the next day for lunch, cold or warmed, a glass of rosé to hand.
And in the vein of all things spring, here’s some lovely music to play as you cook, serve, or enjoy…Max Richter’s brilliant re-imagining of Vivaldi’s “Spring”. The whole album is worth a listen…