Spring has definitely sprung here in San Francisco's beautiful Fort Mason District, my trusty cyberpeeps, and with its return comes some good news and some bad news.
The good news is that, thanks to El Niño, many reservoirs in northern California have been substantially replenished by winter rains and snowmelt (the drought ain't over, but it helps). The good news is that a record numbers of California gray whale calves were born in the lagoons of Baja California and are now heading north to Alaska with mom. The good news is that the annual Technicolor display of native wildflowers is peaking in Golden Gate Park, in the Marin Headlands, in the Santa Cruz Mountains and beyond.
The good news is that, without a doubt, the burgeoning bounty of fresh, local produce on display at my Sunday morning farmer’s market (yours too, I hope) is just now hitting its glorious, dewy springtime stride.
The bad news, alas, is that it looks like I’m gonna need to pick up a couple extra sommie shifts hawking wine to support my asparagus and daffodil habits. Even in the massive quantities I desire, the flowers alone aren’t much of an issue, as a bunch of ten stems is only $2.50 and usually last a full week or more, but coupled with the armloads of Asparagus officinalis I’ve been scarffing down daily (organic, freakin’ delicious right now, and $7.99 per pound) the cash quickly adds up. Throw in various handfuls of this and that, of all the other freshly plucked offerings; throw in a basket or two of (gasp…talk about expensive!) organic strawberries, and you may soon find me standing at the intersection of Van Ness Avenue and Pine Street with the other panhandlers, sheepishly brandishing a cardboard sign: “Will Pull Corks for Spring Veggies”.
My favorite way to cook asparagus in a flash is to pan roast it atop the stove (the really thin ones I just munch raw). Heat a large frying pan, pour in a hefty drizzle of really good extra virgin olive oil and wait a moment. Add the trimmed spears (I don’t peel) and a dash of coarse sea salt, cover the pan and, still on high heat, blast away. Vigorously shake the pan every so often, and in literally a minute or two they’re done. Depends, of course, on the thickness of the the asparagus spears, but this method is, and should be, fast. You want them still bright green and crunchy.
Asparagus gets a bad rap when it comes to wine. (Artichokes do too, but my savings account isn’t in danger because of fresh, local artichokes.) Alas, the reputation is true, as many wines can take on a weirdly sweet yet metallic, artificially canned fruit kinda flavor when paired with this iconic spring delight.
Not to worry, tho, for two reasons.
The first is that you’re probably not sitting down to a lonely platter of asparagus for lunch or dinner. Unless you’re me and do do that, it’s probably just one part of a larger meal, so grab a nice bottle of whatever you find works with the main event and sip away. If, however, asparagus is the star attraction and you wish to try and hone in on something a bit more focused, you may want to bear in mind a basic rule of thumb (we’re talking white, here): choose something really fresh, crisp, lean and acidic even, with zero oak treatment I would suggest. Much depends on the preparation, on how you cook and accent the asparagus, but Sauvignon Blanc naturally comes to mind, and worldwide this wine is better than ever as winemakers learn to leave it alone and let the grape’s aromatic, pungent personality shine. Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé from the Loire Valley in France are two classics, or try a Touraine Sauvignon for a less expensive choice. A slightly less tropical and less bodacious New Zealand offering might do the trick, as can a balanced California version from Lake County, Sonoma County or Monterey County, to name but a few. Italian suggestions include an honest, zesty Pinot Grigio, of course (thinking Friuli or the Alto Adige), a Roero Arneis from Piedmont in the northwest, or a Vernaccia di San Gimignano from Tuscany. From Spain a citrusy Albariño, Rueda or Txakoli; from Portugal a lean and zesty Vinho Verde. And definitely search out Grüner Veltliner from Austria, one of the current darlings of the wine world: a slightly peppery, grapefruity, mineral laden white wine, and a great foil for many vegetable-based dishes. Finally, perhaps a pale, firm and dry (and ever so slightly earthy) Mediterranean-style rosé, another of my favorite springtime indulgences as the newest vintage comes to market, and a wine that needn’t be fussed over. There’s a bevy of other interesting options out there, and most of them can be easy on the pocketbook, so chat with your neighborhood wine merchant to get some more suggestions. Then cook up some damn asparagus and have fun.
Grüner veltliner was going to be my second tip (especially a lighter and leaner expression), because it’s so damned adept at succeeding where other wines fall a bit flat, but I already mentioned it. So my second suggestion is to squeeze a bit of fresh lemon and a couple grinds of cracked pepper on top your log-jam mound of asparagus (maybe some minced chives, too), a no brainer as the threesome (foursome?) goes hand in hand, but a finishing touch that seems to help mitigate the sometimes difficult or awkward food/wine match.
Unfortunately, none of this advice will help later when a quick jaunt to the restroom lets you know for sure you’ve been indulging asparagus-style (you and anyone else nearby).
Eat real food, people, and eat your veggies.
See you on the trail, or in the Poor House!
Peter J. Palmer