Asparagus: Now’s the Moment

asparagus at Fish La Boissonerie.jpg

And here they are served as a starter at the wonderful Fish la Boissonerie with a grapefruit beurre blanc and poached quail eggs. 

I love that when local asparagus are available, they get star treatment.  Sure they might show up as a pretty garnish to a dish, and they might occasionally appear as an accompaniment to a main course, but they’re most often served solo and almost always at the start of the meal.  And if they’re white, there’s no question about it, they’ll be their own course:  Fresh white asparagus are treated with the kind of reverence the French reserve for other national treasures, like truffles and chickens from Bresse. 

If I understand this correctly, there’s nothing genetically different between white and green asparagus; the extreme difference in color is achieved by mounding earth around asparagus, so that they’re never exposed to sunlight and therefore can’t develop the chlorophyll that would turn them green.  When you see purple on the tips of ivory white asparagus, it’s a sign that the stalk got a little rambunctious or had a growth spurt and, in either case, pushed its head out and got a little sun.

People say that white and green asparagus taste alike.  I’ve never done a blind tasting, but I feel as though the whites are milder tasting and that their texture is more tender, but I might just be swayed by all the stereotypes of fragility associated with whiteness.  What I am certain of is that they’re good both warm and at room temperature and great with fairly rich sauces and with eggs.  Asparagus and eggs have a special affinity for one another and so it’s not unusual to find the spears topped with a poached egg or paired with an egg-based sauce.

But before we get to the sauce, here are just a few tips on buying, keeping and cooking asparagus.

  • The stalks should be firm and smooth – wrinkles in asparagus are like wrinkles in us: a sign of age.
  • The cut ends of the asparagus should not be dry and shriveled.
  • The tips of the asparagus should be tightly closed.
  • Choose asparagus that are all the same size, so they’ll cook evenly.
  • Plan to use your asparagus within a day or two of buying them. 
  • When you get the asparagus home, trim the bottoms of the stalks and wrap them with a damp paper towel, put the spears in a plastic bag and refrigerate them.  Alternatively, you can trim the bottoms, put the spears in a glass or vase with a couple of inches of water and then cover them with a plastic bag and refrigerate. 
  • Whether or not you peel the asparagus before cooking them is up to you.  Because the skin can be stringy, I like to peel the spears, leaving the tips and an inch or so of skin beneath them untouched.
  • Just before cooking, snap the bottom of the asparagus off at its natural breaking point or cut the asparagus with a knife so they’re all the same length.  The important thing is to remove the woody part at the base.

There are a few good ways to cook asparagus, but no matter how you cook them, the test for doneness is the same:  Pierce a spear with the point of a paring knife – when the spear is crisp-tender, the asparagus is done. 

  • One way to cook asparagus is to tie them into bundles and to stand them up in a tall pot that has about 3 inches of boiling salted water in it.  Cook covered and you’ll boil the base of the asparagus and steam their tender tips.  Start checking the asparagus after 5 minutes.
  • Or you can tie the asparagus into bundles of 8 to 12 stalks and cook the bundles in a pot of boiling salted water.  Bundled, the asparagus might take about 8 minutes but, again, start checking after 5 minutes.
  • Another good method, and the one I use most often, is to fill a wide skillet with salted boiling water and to cook the asparagus in the water until they test done – start testing after 4 minutes.

Cooked asparagus should always be well drained before serving.

In fact, when my friend Martine served a passel of fat white asparagus as a starter at dinner the other night in Paris, she brought the spears to the table wrapped in a beautiful linen kitchen towel.  The towel was folded so neatly that it looked as though the asparagus were tucked into bed.  That night, Martine served what she called a mousseline:  a homemade chive mayonnaise lighten with a stiffly beaten egg white.

Mayonnaise mousseline is a good sauce for room-temperature spears; and a mousseline based on hollandaise (hollandaise lightened with a little whipped cream) or a plain hollandaise are good for warm asparagus.  And a sauce gribiche, the sauce served at le Paul Bert, is excellent with asparagus. 

I was tickled to see that just recently Molly Wizenberg, she of Orangette, was also smitten with asparagus and sauce gribiche.  Take a look at Orangette for two sauce gribiche recipes, one from the The Zuni Cafe Cookbook and another from the Chez Panisse Café Cookbook

If you want a recipe for mayonnaise, look in any standard cookbook from Joy of Cooking to How to Cook Everything.  And if you want a recipe for hollandaise and mousseline, and want a great explanation to go with it, look at Michael Ruhlman’s new book, Ratio.

If you want something even simpler and so, so good, make a basic vinaigrette for the asparagus or, even simpler, just drizzle the warm spears with pistachio or hazelnut oil and give them a squirt of lemon juice. 

Finally, think about pairing the spears with an egg – a poached egg over asparagus is a sublime dish.  For something uber-simple, very chic and very, very delicious, dress warm asparagus with vinaigrette and top with a poached egg, the yolk from which will make a second sauce for the spears.

If you’ve got other ideas about asparagus, please chime in.  And don’t wait – the season for local asparagus is not all that long.


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