In the western, industrialized, urbanized world where everything is available all year round and we’ve almost lost our sense of the seasons, our own locally grown asparagus can be a rare and precious treat. Let’s vote with our shopping baskets, turn our backs on (and our noses up at) the imported, canned or frozen stuff, punch the air and rejoice that some things are still truly seasonal. There’s a time to eat this wonderful vegetable, and it’s now.
As to which is the best kind of asparagus, white or green, opinions are sharply divided. Loosely speaking, Anglo-Saxons favor the green, as do generally the Italians and the Spaniards. Around these parts – Alsace, the Black Forest, Switzerland – people are more into the white or the mauve-tipped varieties.
For years I labored under the misconception that white and green asparagus were two different plants. I learned the error of my ways after a visitto our local asparagus farmer, Monsieur Werner Girroy, who also does duty as the vice president and grand piqueur of Alsace’s Confrérie de l’Asperge (Asparagus Fraternity). It turns out, explains Monsieur Girroy, that white asparagus would be green if it ever got the chance to poke its nose up above the sandy soils in which it grows. Its ivory colour is due to the fact that it’s mounded over with earth (“blanched,” like potatoes) and never permitted to see the light of day.
Asparagus officinalis is one of the posher members of the lily family (its more plebeian relations are leeks, garlic and onions) and has been considered a delicacy since Roman times. Both Cato and Columella chronicle its cultivation, while Pliny the Elder noted the best and most impressive specimens might weigh in at 4 ounces or 100 grams each. During Europe’s Dark Ages, things went a bit quiet on the asparagus front, and the vegetable only came into its own again under Louis XIV, the Sun King, who had it grown in his hothouses at Versailles to lengthen its growing season.
The 17th-century diarist Samuel Pepys was also partial to the spears: in 1667 he records buying a bundle of “sparrow-grass” in Fenchurch Street for one shilling and sixpence. Madame de Pompadour was a fan, appreciating it particularly for its supposed aphrodisiac qualities. Her favorite dish combined asparagus tips and eggs. Perhaps the latter were soft-boiled and the tips dipped into them, like soldiers in the breakfast boiled egg – arguably the best way to deal with asparagus. Colette, who warned that “the three great stumbling blocks in a girl’s education were homard à l‘americaine, a boiled egg and asparagus,” would surely have agreed.
When cooking asparagus, there’s just one rule: Keep it simple. A tall, straight-sided asparagus pan with a wire basket inside to hold the spears upright does the business if your favored method is to boil and/or steam them, though the pan has a hard job earning its keep the rest of the year. Nowadays I more often lay the spears in a roasting pan, anoint them with olive oil, sprinkle them parsimoniously with sea salt and give them a 10 to 15 minute roasting in a 220-degree C/425-degree F oven until just tender. Alternatively I give them the olive oil/sea salt treatment and cook them instead on a ridged grill pan or on the barbecue.
With my asparagus I like to serve a sunset-coloured sauce maltaise (hollandaise with orange juice) made in the blender, a method which, as Julia Child briskly observed in “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” is “well within the capabilities of an 8-year-old child.” Beat three egg yolks at high speed in the blender with a pinch of salt and a tablespoon each of lemon juice and blood orange juice. Then heat 100 grams (4 ounces) of butter in a small pan till liquid (or in the microwave in a small microwave-safe pitcher). With the blender still on high speed, pour the butter in a steady stream through the hole in the blender lid. The sauce “should thicken perceptibly,” assures Julia. (If, nevertheless, you flunk the 8 year-old child test and it doesn’t thicken, go to plan B, vinaigrette.) When the sauce is thick, add another couple of tablespoons of orange juice and a smidgen of grated orange zest.
Serve the sauce with the asparagus and provide some finely sliced cooked and cured ham (Parma, Bayonne, Serrano).
Sue Style is the author of nine books, including “A Taste of Alsace and Alsace Gastronomique.” She writes on food, wine and travel from her base in southern Alsace close to Switzerland and Germany, and for her website www.suestyle.com
Photos from top:
Spring asparagus at a Padua market. Credit: Sue Style
Monsieur Werner Girroy, vice-president and grand piqueur of Alsace‘s Confrérie de l‘Asperge. Credit: Sue Style