Sunday, May 06, 2012

In Praise of Asparagus

White Asparagus is deemed so delicate that it is called Edible Ivory or White Gold. It was already eaten in Aswan, Egypt 20,000 years ago. It is hard to imagine that vegetables, which we still eat today, were already grown in prehistory. For some reason I find that comforting. Not everything changes. Some things continue as they have been for times immemorial.

I grew up with the magic of the white asparagus season. The first time when you see them in the shop they are still wildly expensive. Then they become more abundant and more affordable. Harvested from the second Thursday in April until St. John (24th of June), as they still are, they are seasonal. I like the fact that they are not available all year round. It makes them a delicacy, something to look forward to, to discuss. During that time they are offered on the menu of every respectable restaurant in the whole of Western Europe. I don’t know why they never crossed the North Sea, let alone the Atlantic. This is really strange, as they are so celebrated in the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, France and Spain.

Cooking White Asparagus

Before preparing white asparagus soak them in a generous amount of water for half an hour or more. Then first break off the wooden ends by snapping the stems. There is a sort of natural cracking point. You can use these ends for soup. Or snap off the ends before soaking. That makes more sense. Carefully peel the stalks with a potato or asparagus peeler from the tip down, making sure that all the bark-like skin is removed. Plunge the shoots in ample cold water, enough to keep them submerged. Add a little salt and slowly bring to the boil. Some cooks will turn off the heat as soon as they are boiling. Others will leave them simmering ever so gently for 4 to 8 minutes. Then they too will turn off the heat and leave the asparagus to continue to cook in their water. Check whether they are done by pricking the end with a fork. When you feel no resistance they are.

Lift them carefully out of the water with a slotted spoon and leave to drain on a tea towel.

Traditionally, white asparagus is served with thinly sliced bone ham, mashed boiled eggs speckled with generous amounts of chopped parsley, melted butter and new potatoes, boiled in the skin. Some gastronomes will serve them with Hollandaise sauce. I never do, lazy bum that I am: too complicated!

Now for eating them. There are two ways:

1. Pick them up with your fingers by the end and eat them like that, lifting them to your mouth like a raw herring. Be ready to have the juice dripping down your sleeves up your arm, but this is one of the very few foods that etiquette will allow you to eat with your hands (globe artichokes being another), so don’t complain and make the most of it!

2. Pick up the end of the stalk with your fingers of one hand (again!), and scrape down with your fork towards the tip. Slush will come out, which you can then mix with the egg and potato that you have also mashed with your fork.

Both manners of consumption are messy, but hey, this is a delicacy! It makes you eat more slowly and savour the flavours more carefully.

For dessert there is really only one option: strawberries. Of course you can serve them with castor sugar or whipped cream or vanilla ice cream. But I wouldn’t. Because it would spoil their natural sweetness, their succulent fragrance. Of course I am not talking about the supermarket variety. You may do with them whatever you like, it will improve them. I am talking about the rose-red, warm, luscious berries that make your mouth water.

So: enjoy this summery feast!

No comments: