My parents love asparagus, their go-to green vegetable. During my last trip to visit them in Sacramento, I was given the important task of preparing it. I kept it simple: A quick, blistering sauté in olive oil and salt, followed by a splash of lemon juice. “The asparagus is very good,” my stepfather said. “I like the lemon.” (Though it may not seem like it, this is an enthusiastic endorsement from Greg.)
My stepfather had never experienced the combination of spring green vegetable and lemon before, and that is too bad, because nearly everything is better when finished with a little acid, and lemon juice is particularly well suited to spring veggies — it’s bright and juicy, with floral notes that complement those grassy, verdant flavours.
If you do nothing else with your sautéed spring vegetables — your asparagus, your sugar snap peas, your ramps, your fiddleheads — finish them with some fresh lemon juice, just after they come out of the pan. (Adding lemon directly to the pan can cook the juice, dimming its brightness.) If you want to really knock it out of the kitchen, though, get parm and pepper involved.
Cheese and pepper — known as “cacio e pepe” to the Italians — is a stunning combination all on its own. Add lemon juice, and you get to experience salt, acidity, pungency, and umami all in one bite. And that’s in addition to the fresh, slightly bitter, springy base flavour of your vegetable.
Parmigiano-Reggiano is an obvious and excellent choice for the cheese, but Pecorino would be similarly delicious. Aged gouda would also rock. You can grate the cheese over the asparagus while it’s still in the pan — the parts that make content will crisp up into delightful bits of frico — or you can add it after the spears come off the heat, creating a cloud of fluffy white cheese.
Grind your pepper fresh for the most pungent, piquant flavour, and don’t be afraid to branch out and explore the peppercorn rainbow.
To put it all together: Cook your veg like you usually do. I think hot and fast is the way to go — you just want to get it bright green and tender-crisp. Add cheese to the pan if you want those crispy bits, then plate and squeeze on the lemon and grind on the pepper. If you want your cheese fluffy rather than crispy, remove the asparagus from the pan, squeeze on the lemon, then grate the cheese on top and grind on the pepper. Eat immediately, because why would you wait?