Spring green: Roast Asparagus

I think it is safe to say that Spring has truly arrived. Capricious weather, wildflower covered hillsides, and that brief ten minutes of overlap in the year when the hills are green at the same time that trees are in leaf – these are my first clues. But the real indicator is my insatiable craving for fresh foods like bright peppery watercress, sweet green peas, crunchy lettuce salads, and emerald stalks of asparagus. I want the unadulterated flavors of green things, no fussy seasonings or rich preparations to mask their delicate essence; if not raw, then not far from it.

photo by Israel Holby

I realize that this is hardly an original sentiment. Food blogs, websites and magazines are full of “fresh flavors of Spring” features. But, hey, I live no more than 25 miles from the feathery fronds of California Delta asparagus farms; I’m not going to eat butternut squash risotto just to be an iconoclast.

Asparagus is a vegetable that in my mind generally needs no improvement other than salt, pepper and olive oil and a quick roast in a hot oven. Remembering that water is a colorless, flavorless liquid and that most vegetables are made up in large part by water indicates to me that in order to enhance or highlight the essential flavor of the vegetable, water should be removed, not added. Hence, I roast asparagus.

When buying asparagus,  I take a minute to look the bundle over. The cut ends should not look like the desiccated grain ends of a block of wood, the stalks should be firm, smooth, and evenly green, and the tips should be largely intact tight buds. I usually trim the ends just above the white part of the stalk and don’t bother to peel any further north than that. Rinsed and dried, the stalks are laid in alternating directions on a sheet pan to allow as much surface to touch the hot pan as possible. Drizzled with olive oil, then shaken around to coat and then salt and peppered, these beauties are ready for a blistering hot oven, about 425°.

I keep an eye on them. Since asparagus varies so much in thickness, I don’t have a set time to roast them, but I look for the color to be brilliant green with a few edges just beginning to crisp and brown in the heat. I want the stalks to still be firm enough not to double over when I pick one up.

And that’s it. Bright, sweet and juicy, they need nothing more done to them. I’ll be virtuously devouring these naked (the asparagus, that is, not me) for weeks before I even think about dipping them in Hollandaise sauce or wrapping them in prosciutto. It’s fresh, brilliant Spring on a plate.