The Savory Side of Asparagus

What has really struck me this year is how happily asparagus pairs with umami, the savory “fifth flavor.”

Most foods from spring’s first explosion of green come and go in a short month or thereabouts but asparagus season lasts six weeks or more. So my lust for the stuff is tempered just a little by the knowledge that I’ll have time enough to cook it over and over again. I’ve made, as usual, platters of asparagus vinaigrette, vats of asparagus risotto, and enormous piles of lemon and asparagus pasta. What has really struck me this year, though, is how happily asparagus pairs with umami, the savory “fifth flavor.”

I first noticed this when I realized that the two of us were eating our fourth two-pound bunch in four days straight from the blistering oven. Roasted asparagus (or, even better, grilled asparagus) combines the grassy, vegetal flavors of new growth with the savory earthiness of a charred steak. It’s simple: Just toss washed-and-trimmed spears with oil, salt, and pepper and put them on the grill or in a hot oven. Pumpkin seed oil, sparingly applied, is a great complement but, honestly, I like to just put a big mound in the center of the table and have people eat the hot stalks with their fingers.

Asparagus is also happy on a plate with bacon, especially bacon in the funky, long-cured, well-smoked style. I made a tasty dinner of sautéed bacon and asparagus stirred into scrambled eggs, with a thick slice of whole-wheat bread and a salad. Better yet was pan-roasted bacon, asparagus, and ramps, lashed together with cream and served over linguine, combining savory, sweet, rich, and bright on a single plate. At first I thought these dishes worked because, well, everything is better with bacon. But an asparagus “carpaccio” from Faith Willinger’s Red, White, and Greens helped identify the common thread. I shaved stalks of raw asparagus on a mandoline and tossed them with salt, olive oil, and shaved parmesan—a concentrated source of umami. Just those few ingredients give rise to a surprisingly wide range of animal, vegetable, and mineral flavors.

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