You have to like asparagus if you are in Italy in the spring. There is no escaping the spears, they are in every mercato, every supermarket, on every menu. Occasionally you’ll spot an exotic white or purple asparagus display, but for every day eating, it’s green asparagus.
By Judith Klinger
If you are lucky, you might get some wild asparagus. Those spindly spears need to be hunted and plucked while nubile or they’ll turn woody and inedible. The flavor is concentrated asparagus to the 10th degree with hints of desirable wildness.
Hunting for wild asparagus is like panning for gold; you have just about the same chance as hitting the lottery. Those crafty spears like to grow on steep hillsides, just out of reach. I’m far better at spotting the solitary man at the market who has a tiny table of freshly foraged wild asparagus then I’ll ever be at scrambling up hills to find a few spears.
Commercially grown asparagus in the States is astonishingly uniform in size. How do they do that? I’m picturing the asparagus spears being forced to grow through a perforated mat with holes of varying sizes…a spear that cannot adapt…dies. Draconian asparagus farming. (I’m sure it’s a sorting thing, done humanely at the asparagus processing plant, but I prefer my Game of Thrones style fantasy of asparagus selection.)
In our mercato, you get a tightly rubber banded “mazze” or bundle of asparagus and it has spears from slender and tender to stocky and woody. Which means you can’t cook them all at once, on the same night, in the same dish, because each spear of asparagus deserves to be treated according to its girth.
Which is why we wound up eating asparagus three days in a row.
Here’s your quickie guide to asparagus:
1) Life is too short to peel asparagus. If you have fresh, farmer grown asparagus in all shapes and sizes, the trick is to snap the stalk at the point where tender meets woody. Gently flex the stalk and it will naturally snap at the right spot. Discard the woody, eat the tender, and forget about peeling. If you are buying commercial grade asparagus, whack then ends off with a knife and that’s it.
2) Steam, roast, or grill? The effete amongst us will insist on steaming to preserve the delicacy of flavor. The robust roasters say the roasting concentrates the flavors. The grillers will say grill because they believe that grilling anything makes it taste better, even grilling sneaker soles will be flavorful if properly smoked and grilled. Personally, I like variety, and even more than variety, I like convenience. If the oven is on, I roast. If speed is needed, I steam or boil. The quickest path to dinner works for me.
3) Asparagus is an aphrodisiac. History has it Madame Pompadour served asparagus to her lovers. A 16th century Arabian instructional love manual recommended asparagus for sexual vigor. I get the visual implication of an erect spear, but I cannot remember asparagus having any other effect on our love life.
DAY ONE: Warm Asparagus Salad with Tomatoes
Choose only the freshest, tenderest stalks. Cut the tips off, and chop the stems. Blanche the stems for one or two minutes in salted water, add the tips last, and cook for 30 or 45 seconds. Drain and arrange on a plate…or throw the asparagus into a bowl, depending on your mood.
In a saucepan with some olive oil, add a tablespoon of chopped red onion, and cook until barely soft. Toss in a chopped red tomato for only a few seconds, enough to warm the tomato.
Using the tip of your very clean finger, dab up some of juice from the pan and decide if you want a little more acid. You can use a spoon, but a quick dab of the finger is faster. Add some red vinegar or lemon juice to taste. Pour over the asparagus and serve warm.
DAY TWO: Truffled Asparagus & White Bean Soup
Cook a cup of white beans in salted water until tender.
Choose medium sized stalks of asparagus, those that might be a little woody.
Roughly chop a carrot, stalk of celery, and a small onion. Sauté in a pan with olive oil, sprinkle with a two finger pinch of salt. Add a few cups of water and boil until the vegetables are all tender.
Drain the beans, reserving the liquid.
Puree the asparagus, soffrito and cooking liquid until it is smooth like velvet, soft like a baby’s dimpled bum. If the soup is too thick, add some of the bean pot liquor until you have the consistency you want.
Return to the heat and gently reheat the soup.
Serve in a warm bowl with a generous knob of white truffle butter.
Hey! I see you saying WTF? White truffle butter, really? Where am I supposed to get that? OK, use what you have on hand. The soup is a flavor foil…you could use garlicky grilled shrimp as a garnish, or bits of crispy pancetta or bacon. Use your imagination. I happen to have truffle butter in the fridge, so that’s what I used.
DAY THREE: Asparagus Cream Risotto
Make a basic risotto: sauté a little bit of soffrito (finely chopped carrot, onion, celery). Toast the rice. Use vegetable stock.
While you have one eye on the risotto, steam or boil some of the asparagus until tender. I used about 10 stalks for the 2 of us, roughly chopped.
Reserve a few tips to use as a garnish.
In a blender, add one good sized handful of grated parmigiano cheese, two very generous knobs of butter. Gently pulse the blender so the butter is mixed well with the cheese. Drain the warm asparagus, and add to the blender.
Once again, blend until very smooth, like the satin sheets you’ll never own.
Add some fresh lemon juice to taste, check the salt level, and blend again.
Sauté the asparagus tips in a small bit of butter or olive oil. Its only purpose is a bit of contrast, so don’t sweat this step.
The whole time you are doing this, you are also still tending the risotto. You either need to be able to multi-task, or you need a partner.
When the rice is tender to your liking, add the asparagus cream to the risotto, stir gently, top with the sautéed tips and serve quickly. Because as we all know, risotto waits for no man!
We were down to just a few asparagus tips when it was time for the poached egg variation. It’s in the spirit of a hollandaise sauce, without the heart stopping butter. (And we just ate that decadent risotto the day before, so a hollandaise at this point would put us into an early grave.)
Steam or grill your tips. Very gently poach an egg, the runnier the better. Place on top of the asparagus and finish the dish with a good drizzle of olive oil and a slosh of red wine vinegar.
Serve immediately, break the yoke and mix in the bowl. It doesn’t win votes for eye appeal, but it is mighty tasty.
And now for the bad news. I went to the shops yesterday and there wasn’t a stalk of asparagus in sight! I was planning a sausage and asparagus lasagne and now I may have to wait until next spring. So very cruel.