Long before foraging became fashionable and wild ingredients took star billing on prestige restaurant menus, collecting wild edibles outside wasn’t talked about. Few pesticides littered the fields and fencerows in early spring. Wind scattered seeds, birds ate berries and dropped seeds on ditch banks under telephone lines. We wilted dandelion leaves with hot vinegar and bacon for spring salads, cooked pigweed like spinach, and collected mountain serviceberries for blueberry pancakes, but asparagus that grew along the ditch banks was the best of all foraged foods.
On the dry irrigated western farmland, mountain snow melt rushed into the rivers, filled the canals and trickled into shovel- cleaned ditches when the ditch rider turned head gates to release water allotments that would make the land bloom. Asparagus loves water, and the perennial roots living deep in the soil sprang to life with the spring flow, bolted and blossomed when the pickers tired and fell to the summer scythe blade after the birds had their fill. Several decades ago agricultural controllers decided that weeds along the ditch banks were a problem; they sprayed Roundup, cemented the channels, and most of the wild asparagus is gone.
Thankfully asparagus still thrives, cultivated throughout the country and readily available in farmers’ markets. Now is the time to feast on this prized vegetable; for the best flavor, asparagus needs to be selected in season and as close to its place of harvest as possible. Blanche it, steam it, roast it, grill it, season with a little butter, olive oil, garlic and some fresh herbs or twirl it into pasta with some bacon and eggs for Asparagus Carbonara.
4-5 oz. thickly sliced bacon*, diced (1 cup)
½ large onion thinly sliced (1 cup)
3 large cloves garlic, peeled and thinly sliced
pinch crushed red pepper (optional)
1 lb. fresh asparagus diagonally sliced (see photo)
3 eggs, free range if possible
2 oz. light or heavy cream (1/4 cup)
1 ½ oz. freshly grated Parmesan cheese (1/2 cup)
8 oz. dry fettuccine of linguine
salt, pepper, fresh mint and chive flowers or parsley
*This is a good place to splurge on sliced-to-order butcher shop slab bacon if it’s available.
Choose a flat-bottomed wok or a large frying pan. Add a few drops olive oil and gently sauté the bacon until fat is rendered and bacon golden but not crisp. Remove bacon with slotted spoon and pour fat into small cup.
Return 2 tablespoons bacon fat to the frying pan or wok and gently sauté the onion until limp. Add garlic and crushed red pepper, cook a few seconds longer. Set aside.
Bring a 3 quarts water to a rolling boil, salt generously and quickly cook sliced asparagus 3 minutes. Remove asparagus with a spider or slotted spoon and spread out on a baking sheet. Add the pasta to the boiling water and cook for the recommended time.
Meanwhile whisk together the eggs, cream, salt, pepper. Reheat onion in wok or skillet, add bacon and asparagus. Warm thoroughly and turn off heat. As soon as the pasta is cooked, drain it well and turn the hot pasta into the skillet or wok with bacon and asparagus. Toss to combine along with the egg mixture, adding the parmesan cheese. (The heat of the pasta and the asparagus will cook the egg into a delicate coating sauce.) Use tongs to divide the carbonara into warm pasta bowls and top with chopped fresh mint and chive flowers or parsley. Serves 3-4.