A God Among Vegetables


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Lemon-and-mint-infused mashed potatoes match the delicate, springlike flavors of asparagus and almonds.

Credit
Andrew Scrivani for The New York Times

In Britain, where I live, asparagus is a god among vegetables. It is greeted with real reverence in spring, as if nothing worth eating has been available for months. With a deep sigh of relief at the end of a long winter of roots, cabbages and more roots, we finally spot those fresh green shoots, and everybody is happy.

This may come across as hyperbole, but after more than 20 years living in Britain, I am afraid I have finally caught the bug.

The short season — not much longer than eight weeks — and the notion that this delicacy is something “we” do really well, give asparagus special status here. Yes, tomatoes grow in Britain, but they’ll never be as good as Italian ones, and we all know it. British Brassicas and root vegetables are also excellent, but they are staples for most of the year, breeding a sense of familiarity that often sounds a bit like contempt.

So now I, too, get giddy when the first bundles of local asparagus appear at my local greengrocer in April. I, too, grab them with both hands and throw them into a pot as fast as I can. I, too, start lecturing anyone who will listen about the splendor of our local hero.

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Asparagus, roasted plainly and quickly, is showered with flavorful capers, dill and almonds.

Credit
Andrew Scrivani for The New York Times

Perhaps because of this esteem, I tread lightly when cooking asparagus. It also makes sense, since asparagus is so delicate that it can easily be overwhelmed by neighboring ingredients in a dish. I don’t understand the point of mixing asparagus in a salad with lots of other vegetables, where its marvelous yet subtle flavor is lost in a cacophony.

To celebrate its distinctiveness, I tend to pair asparagus with the classics: eggs, butter, olive oil, cheese, cream, onions, garlic, potatoes. Texture comes from fried bread crumbs or nuts, the most natural for me being mild almonds, which leave the right amount of space for the taste of asparagus. For flavor, acidity is a must. Sometimes tomatoes work, but citrus and vinegar are always my first choice. Recently, I have been using lots of capers because they bring with them both the acidity and the umami notes that benefit asparagus so much.

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