I love how seasonal vegetables connect us to the earth and how, when transformed in the kitchen and served on the communal table, they connect us to each other. Oh yes, there are lofty environmental and cultural goals in all of that. Fundamentally though, personal gratification starts with a one-on-one encounter with, let’s say, stalks of asparagus improbably sprouting from a sere landscape, rising miraculously, contradicting your visual instincts, but affirming what you knew all along: that life exists and can flourish in that previously barren place. That’s the promise of spring.
The asparagus field is disorienting to navigate. The gray ground is strewn with decimated stalks of previous seasons, fallen into a wasteland that snaps slightly as you move through it. While there are rows where you’re told to walk, familiar vertical cues are elusive. There are just a few tiny green shoots here and there, poking through the ground, ready to be snapped off and placed in your bucket.
When you get the asparagus home, trim the ends neatly on a slight diagonal and place the stalks in a bowl with shallow water, displayed like so many tulips. Treat them like flowers and they will stay fresh for days in the refrigerator, though eating them within hours of the harvest reveals a rich vegetable that bears little resemblance to the pale, dried-out store-bought variety.
For the first few weeks of the local season, we inevitably prepare the asparagus as simply as possible, eating it drizzled with olive oil and salt, or fresh butter and lemon juice. One of my favorite ways to serve asparagus – for brunch, lunch or a light supper – is to toss the cooked spears in melted butter in a wide pan, and sprinkle them with some freshly grated Parmesan until the cheese turns brown and crispy and creates a slight crust to the vegetables. Topped with a fried (or poached) egg and snipped tarragon, this is a surprisingly delicious combination of flavors and textures that belies its simplicity but is perfect for a light spring meal.