Spring’s First Stalks
by Brian Ricci
Oh, April! Named for Aphrodite—the goddess of love— how I’ve missed you. With April’s return we mark the re-emergence of foodstuffs green, delicate and delicious. I’m thinking of the first cuttings of fragrant chervil, peppery watercress and chlorophyllic fiddlehead ferns—but at the top of my list stands the first cutting of tender asparagus. Cultivated for millennia (asparagus was popular in ancient Rome, and a recipe even exists in the world’s oldest surviving cookbook, “Apicius: de re Coquinaria”), asparagus heralds the coming local harvest as it gathers momentum. Its young, delicate flesh tells us that we can, and should, do “less” with it.
When looking for asparagus, find thin, unblemished spears—thickness denotes age and, invariably, thicker spears will be quite firm and fibrous. The flower on top should be intact and not bruised. You may see asparagus with purple tops—these tend to have a higher sugar content and are therefore sweeter when eaten soon after harvest. After purchasing, be sure to wash the asparagus in cold water, as it is often grown in sandy soil and may have an unpleasant, grainy texture if left unwashed. Local farmers markets—such as Headhouse Square on Sundays—are an ideal resource for finding the first cuttings. To keep from eating the more fibrous, stalky roots, hold a spear with a hand on each end and gently bend it until it snaps, then add the root end to your vegetable-stock scrap collection.
Prosciutto Wrapped Asparagus with Egg
- 1 pound local asparagus, cleaned
- 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
- 5 to 6 thin slices prosciutto—a domestic product by La Quercia is highly regarded
- 4 local cage-free eggs
- Salt and black pepper to taste
- Place a medium-size nonstick pan on medium heat and add a few tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil.
- Add 2 eggs to the pan and fry until the whites are set but the yolk is runny. Repeat this step with the other 2 eggs.
- Set a cast iron or heavy gauge sauté pan on medium high heat. Wait for a minute and then add enough extra virgin olive oil to coat the bottom of the pan. Look for it to shimmer, then add asparagus—cook in batches if you have to. This will cook quickly, as all you are looking to do is blister the spears. Turn them after 30 seconds of cooking and make sure to season with salt and fresh pepper.
- After about 2 to 3 minutes of cooking, remove the pan from the heat.
- Gently drape the slices of prosciutto over the asparagus while still in the pan—this will begin to melt some of the fat from the cured meat over the asparagus.
- Remove to a large serving plate—or split into 4 individual plates, each garnished with asparagus, prosciutto and topped with a fried egg.
- Invite your dining companions to break the yolk and allow it to run onto the plate—then dive in and enjoy a wonderful hallmark of spring.
Brian Ricci is a chef living and working in Philadelphia.