Asparagus is one of the first vegetables to herald spring. As soon as the ground defrosts, this flowering perennial emerges. The strength of the root system allows the spears to be pushed up several inches per day.

Varietals of asparagus appeared in ancient Rome. Emperor Caesar Agustus was said to yell out “Velocius quam asparagi conquantur,” which means “get moving already” when loosely translated.

It seems Agustus was quite the authority on this sophisticated vegetable and would organize his specialized military forces to search for wild fresh spears for his table.

Additional fun facts about asparagus include the knowledge that the name asparagus come from the Greek and means “sprout” or “shoot.” Asparagus is part of the lily family and is also related to onions, leeks and garlic. It takes asparagus three years from seed to harvest. Oceana County, Michigan is the self-proclaimed asparagus capital of the world but California grows approximately 70 percent of the U.S. asparagus crop each year. Green asparagus and white asparagus come from the same plant, with the white growing under the surface thus blocking sunlight and photosynthesis.

The distinctive flavor of asparagus works well with both light flavors and stronger flavors. A more subtle flavored main dish can be elevated when asparagus is alongside.

Asparagus is fun to pair with bacon, ham, cheese, eggs, lemon, salmon or chicken.

Pairing with wine can be a little trickier. Part of what gives asparagus its tantalizing flavor are the same acids and compounds that can cause many kinds of wine to taste metallic and rough.

Don’t be disheartened. If you love wine and you love asparagus, you have options beyond drowning your asparagus with cheese sauce to make it work.

First rule, avoid tannic reds and overly oaked whites. Reach for something with a hint of citrus or subtle herb. My choices, Sancerre, Pouilly Fume from the Loire Valley in France. Maybe an Alsatian riesling, sauvignon blanc from New Zealand or a chardonnay without a hint of oak from Oregon’s Willamette Valley, where it’s a much cooler growing climate.

White asparagus tends to give you many more wine-pairing options because of its subtler flavor. If you are having lamb for Easter this April, and you can find white asparagus, you could easily enjoy asparagus as a side dish and enjoy a wine made from gamay (aka Beaujolais) or grenache grapes, or a pinot noir from the Central Coast or Willamette Valley.

Mangia bene in April with asparagus.

Asparagi con Salsa al Uovo

Asparagus with boiled egg sauce

2 pounds asparagus (white if you can find them)

3 hard-boiled eggs

2 anchovy fillets, finely minced

1 Tbsp. capers, finely minced

1 lemon, cut in half

1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil

Salt and pepper to taste

Cut eggs in half. Remove yolk from whites and press yolks through a sieve. Add juice from 1/2 lemon to the yolks and slowly add olive oil, as you mix continuously. Mince 1/2 of egg whites and add to the sauce. Add capers and anchovies. Season with salt and pepper to taste and more lemon juice as needed. Whip just until sauce is creamy and well blended. Set aside.

To prepare asparagus, remove the fibrous part of each stalk. Tie in a bundle and place in a tall, narrow pot standing upright. Add enough cold water to cover 2/3 of the stalk and boil for 8 minutes. Serve hot and dip into the egg sauce. Can also be served chilled.

Remaining egg whites can be chopped finely and used as garnish.

Sformato Asparagi

(Asparagus Flan)

Serves 4

3 oz. cooked asparagus tips (about half a cup)

2 eggs

6 oz. cream

2 oz. freshly grated Parmesan cheese

1/4 tsp. ground nutmeg

1 Tbsp. unsalted butter

Salt and pepper to taste

Whisk eggs and cream together in medium bowl. Add nutmeg, cheese, salt and pepper to taste. Gently fold in asparagus tips.

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Butter individual baking forms or ramekins. Fill 2/3 full with mixture.

Place baking forms into shallow baking pan with small amount of water in the pan. (This water bath is called a bagna Maria in Italy.)

Bake at 350 degrees for 20 minutes or until golden on top. Remove forms from baking pan and allow to set for 5 minutes before inverting onto individual plates or platter.

Asparagi al forno con Parmigiano

(Baked Asparagus with Parmesan cheese)

Serves 4—6

2 1/2 pounds fresh asparagus

1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

3 Tbsp. unsalted butter

Extra virgin olive oil for drizzling

Salt to taste

Preheat over to 350 degrees. Butter 9-inch by 13-inch baking dish.

Remove tough asparagus ends. Using a sharp paring knife or vegetable peeler, remove tough outer layer of skin. Tie asparagus in 2 or 3 bundles with kitchen string or thick rubber band.

In tall stock pot add 3 inches cold water and a pinch of salt. Place asparagus upright in water, bring to boil, cover and cook over high heat 6—8 minutes depending on size of asparagus. Drain asparagus on paper towel. Remove banding.

Arrange asparagus tightly into baking dish. Sprinkle evenly with Parmesan cheese and dot with butter. Bake 15 minutes, or until cheese is melted. For more golden color, place under broiler briefly.

Drizzle with extra virgin olive oil before serving.

Diane De Filipi lives in the Napa Valley and leads cooking tours to Italy and Burgundy, France. Visit letsgocookitalian.com or ila-chateau.com/cook-italian for more information.

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