Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Noble Spring Vegetable

Asparagus has a long and proud history. It was cultivated by the ancient Romans, and brought into prominence in the French and Italian aristocracy around the sixteenth century. Today, asparagus retains its noble character, while being available to the everyday citizen. It is a vegetable we love for more than it's own virtue, but what it represents. It announces the end of winter roots, and a new season of colorful vegetables and variety.
Asparagus spears do not come from planting seeds. They are the young shoots of a perennial fernlike plant in the lily family. It thrives in cooler climates with sandy soils, especially along riverbanks and valleys. The "crown," or root mass stores its sugars and energizes the rapid growth of spring shoots. The eight inch spears we buy at the market are usually one days growth.

In Europe, especially France, Germany and Belgium, they cultivate white asparagus by gradually banking the soil over the shoots as they grow, or covering the beds with plastic. This technique protects the plants from the sunlight that triggers photosynthesis, yielding the prized pale blanched spears. White asparagus is very brittle, since it lacks the more pliable chlorophyll cell walls. If you manage to find it, handle with care. They are gaining popularity in American markets and restaurants, but the extra labor involved makes them considerably more expensive. Those who prefer white asparagus swear it is worth the extra effort. So beloved is this vegetable in Alsace and Western Germany, the entire spring season seems to revolve around it. When I was working in Switzerland, where they simmer the spears in water with salt and a little sugar, they even drink the cooking liquid with a squeeze of lemon juice as a digestif. It seemed to me like an asparagus hefeweizen.
When buying asparagus, pick out smooth, brightly colored spears with tightly closed, firm and nascent tips. Fresh asparagus is sweet, and has the feel of squeaky, wet rubber. Old asparagus will begin to look wrinkled at the base, where it is dehydrated, or the tips will have begun to bolt, or flower. The leaves will have elongated, opening and spreading apart. These spears will be tougher, more bitter, with a fainter sweetness. Asparagus spears continue to grow even after they are cut. They are usually stored and transported lying on their side. This is why you often see the tips curving sideways, still trying to grow toward the sun until they run out of energy. Like most vegetables, the natural sugars begin converting into starches the moment they are harvested, so the fresher the better.
The stalks vary in size, from pencils to cigars in thickness. As for a preference between thick and thin spears, it depends on what cooking method you intend. The thin stalks are ideal for grilling, stir fry or saute, which gives them an earthy, caramelized depth of flavor. I prefer the thick spears, which have a higher ratio of tender inside to fibrous outside, and have a more pronounced grassy, herbal flavor. Some people don't like the extra step of peeling the skins from these larger stalks.
When preparing asparagus, the root end needs to be trimmed of its tough, woody base. Hold the stalk in the center, grab the root end and bend it sharply. It will snap off the woody stem at just the point where it is too tough to eat. Of course, we rarely use this method in the restaurant, because we are working with a higher volume. We usually cut the spears evenly to about six or seven inches from the tip for speed and uniformity. To peel the thick stalks with a swivel peeler, pinch the tip and peel off the fibrous layer, starting one or two inches from the tip to the root end.
When cooking asparagus, eggs have long been considered the perfect compliment, whether in an omelet, baked in a quiche or frittata, poached or fried over easy with some mushrooms. They are especially good with spring morels and verpas, if you can find them. The Europeans prefer their asparagus with an egg sauce, a cool mayonnaise or aioli, or a warm hollandaise or maltaise, a special hollandaise sauce finished with blood orange juice. My grandmother used to serve it over toast with a cream sauce, and on warm spring days, my friends always look forward to my chilled soup, a sort of asparagus vichyssoise.
Asparagus shines in simple presentations as well. It can be thinly sliced raw, dressed with a nice, grassy olive oil and sprinkled with grated parmigiano reggiano, or toss them with some olive oil and salt and simply throw them on the grill with some chicken or sausages, and drink a hefeweizen.

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