by Damon Lee Fowler
For anyone who likes bird watching, Mama’s backyard is the place to be.
It’s a place for a cook to be, too, for despite all those nibbling critters, in its season there’s an abundance of almost everything from asparagus, delicate spring lettuce, herbs, and early squash to apples, mulberries, wild blackberries, butter beans, okra, tomatoes, turnips, and winter kale.
At this time of year, one of the rare and unexpected wonders of this little world is white asparagus. It’s not one of my mother’s horticultural experiments, but a complete accident that came about mainly because of all those birds.
Mama laid out her asparagus bed on the southern edge of the yard, where it would get plenty of sun all day long. A couple of yards away from the spot, there’s a forsythia bush. It blooms early and then sprouts a thick mane of dark foliage for the summer. She never gave it a thought.
When that dense shade became an annual nesting spot for a pair of brown thrashers and, some years, a pair of mocking birds, too, she couldn’t bear to prune it back and violate their sanctuary, so the bush was left to grow pretty much unchecked. And so, without a border to control it, did the asparagus bed.
Pretty soon, half the bed was under that forsythia, and the spears that sprout there, without any planning or mulching, come up as delicate and pale as the finest white asparagus selling for a premium in exclusive markets. Actually, it’s much better than market white asparagus, because it’s usually cooked within moments of being cut.
Truth to tell, I’ve rarely tasted it cooked. When I can get home during the season, I take a kitchen knife and slip out early in the morning, while the grass under my bare feet is still cold and wet with dew. Carefully lifting the branches of the forsythia, I quickly cut the first spear I see and eat it on the spot—no salt, no hollandaise, no enriching brown butter.
As its snapping crisp flesh yields under my teeth, its juices literally burst into my mouth, blooming on my tongue like the distilled essence of spring. You might think that this is a little selfish and underhanded, that my mother wouldn’t approve of my secretly raiding her asparagus like the rabbits who decimate her lettuce crop—and you’d be right—if only she weren’t standing right there beside me, doing exactly the same thing.
Asparagus (of Any Color) with Lemon Pecan Brown Butter
Regardless of your asparagus’s complexion, the toasted caramel undertones of brown butter and pecans, balanced by the tang of lemon, make the perfect foil for that spring-fresh flavor. But it’s also terrific with young green beans or almost any broiled, poached, or sautéed white-fleshed fish such as flounder, grouper, halibut, sole, or snapper.
Ingredients:1 1/2 pounds asparagus, trimmed and tough ends peeled
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into bits
1/2 cup pecans
1 lemon, zest removed in fine julienne with a bar zester, cut in half
Put 1 inch of water in a skillet or other wide, shallow pan that will hold the asparagus flat in no more than 2 layers. Cover and bring to a boil over high heat. Add a small handful of salt and, as soon as the water is boiling again, add the asparagus. Cover, bring it quickly back to a boil, and remove the lid. Cook briskly, uncovered, until the asparagus is barely tender but still bright green, about 3-4 minutes. Turn off the heat, immediately drain, using the lid to hold the asparagus. Turn it out onto a warm platter and keep warm.
Put 4 tablespoons of butter in 9-or-10-inch skillet over medium high heat. When melted, add the pecans and sauté, tossing frequently, until the butter and pecans are a uniform golden-brown. Add the lemon zest and the juice from half the lemon. Cook for half a minute longer and remove the pan from the heat.
Swirl in the remaining butter, refresh with another squeeze of lemon juice, taste and add salt if needed. Pour it evenly over the asparagus and serve at once.