Spring is, theoretically, upon us. This I know not because of the weather, which is foul here in Boston, but because the F A Cup is coming up and I have to make serious arrangements with an Irish pub, to watch at 10am my beloved Chelsea, who will be at Wembley in one of those wilder fantasies of which I was so dismissive. And spring means that all sorts of things spring up in my garden. For instance, fiddleneck, or fiddlehead, an annual herb or fern with hairy leaves and curved spikes that result in tiny blue flowers. If you spot anything pale greenish-yellow that looks like the neck of a violin, buy it. Its flavour is variously described as tart or sweet (depending on whether or not you like it) and its effect, mingled with mushrooms, has a way of making the whole rather more than the sum of its parts.
Fiddlenecks are excellent in a pasta sauce. They are cut into lengths just short of the flowers, dropped into boiling water, and simmered for about 90 seconds. They are then drained, refreshed, in cold running water, and drained again. Finally, you spend a little time removing as much as you can of the paper-like tissue that surrounds them.
The sauce is made of any fresh mushrooms, sauteed in olive oil, a clove of garlic and a chopped shallot. It takes between three and four minutes for your mushrooms to soften and throw off their juice. At this point, stop stirring, add finely diced pancetta (just enough to salt the dish), cook briefly, then add the fiddlenecks and toss until heated through. Cook your pasta - I recommend linguine because it provides even distribution for a sauce - al dente, drain it and pour into a heated bowl; stir in a tablespoon of the best olive oil, and add your fiddlenecks and mushrooms together with a few leaves of fresh rocket. This dish should be eaten neat: parmesan would be supererogatory.
Another joy coming in quantity - though not in my garden - is asparagus. There is, of course, nothing in the vegetable world to compare with the Great White Asparagus; but white asparagus, like white fish, has to be handled with delicacy. It is so good as itself that to combine it with improbable, experimental flavours is nothing short of abuse.
The gastronomical secret of asparagus, as of much cooking, lies either in contrasting or combining flavours. Markus Rippberger, a Swiss chef now working in Boston, is an enthusiastic propagandist for white asparagus, and makes an excellent dish in which white asparagus, minus its woody ends, is boiled in a shallow pan to which sea salt is added. As the asparagus is white, rich and earthy, his secret is to blend it with a much-reduced sauce of red peppers. This sauce is simple to make, the peppers being prepared as Italians do for peperoncini, by grilling them until the skin is black, turning them regularly. The skin now comes off easily, after which you cut them into slices. In a hot oven, bake a large onion until the skin is crisp and the inside soft. Combine the peppers and onion in a blender, add a clove of garlic, a tablespoon of olive oil, and puree.
A fine lamb dish with asparagus, this time the green sort, is made by first cooking the asparagus (equal in weight to your lean lamb, which should be cut into large chunks) and cutting off the tips. These are set aside. You then cook the stems, in the same water, for another five or six minutes, or until tender. Puree them and save the liquid. Toss the lamb, dipped in flour, in olive oil (a bland variety will do here), and when browned, reduce the heat and cook with an onion, finely chopped. Slowly pour in your asparagus water and stir until it thickens. Simmer until the meat is tender, which takes about half an hour. At that point, stir in your asparagus puree and season to taste with salt, pepper and a bit of fresh tarragon. Reheat your asparagus tips in boiling water (briefly]) and garnish the lamb with them. The result is a very subtle and satisfying blend of flavours: the opposite of white asparagus and red pepper, which is designed to set off the succulence of the asparagus.
Green asparagus tips (say 2- 3in), of course, make for an excellent addition to pasta (cook the asparagus, toss in oil and throw into the pasta, mixing vigorously so the tips break up into smaller portions. I like this dish warm, not hot, and sprinkled with lemon thyme. It flatters the asparagus.
If you can't find fiddlenecks, plant them. They grow wild, and if they survive a winter in my garden, they'll survive in yours.