It was a short story by Somerset Maugham called The Luncheon that was based in Paris, and it was being read in class when I was in middle school. It was the first time I heard about asparagus. The author while entertaining a guest at a restaurant is nervous about the cost of food his guest is ordering, especially those items not listed on the menu when the asparagus is described as being plump, tender and probably very expensive. Sure enough, I remember wondering what asparagus looked like and how it tasted.
Many years later in the US, when I tasted asparagus prepared simply and accompanied by a sauce at a friend's or in an omelette at family’s in Connecticut, I liked them, but I did wonder why they were considered very expensive. Asparagus was - and still is in some parts of the world during Spring - considered a seasonal delicacy, inspiring Impressionist paintings, and strict statements like the one from an early 20th century French cookbook that notes that “…asparagus must be eaten the very same day that they have been harvested”. However, since they are now available throughout the year their appeal, it seems is not quite the same, at least in some parts of the world.
One of the earliest recipes for asparagus derives from a Roman cook book dated circa 3 CE1 that describes a recipe with cooked asparagus pounded in a mortar with wine among other ingredients and then baked with eggs. Below, is a French preparation of asparagus that still retains the main elements of the old recipe: asparagus, a tangy element through lemons and eggs.
Method to prepare asaparagus:
If cooking a whole bunch of asaparagus, prepare the individual spears by cleaning in water followed by pealing the skin, and cutting if necessary, the tough bottom parts of the spears. Tie the prepared asaparagus spears into a bundle using kitchen twine, and immerse in a pot of boiling salted water until just cooked but still retaining a bite. The cooking time will vary based on the individual thickness and size of the bunch – a bunch of about eight thick asparagus spears takes about three minutes. An even more caring method to prepare the asparagus would involve placing the asparagus bundle vertically in the pot of boiling water with the spear heads just above the line of water so that they are cooked more gently by the steam unlike the stems which are immersed in the water. Drain the cooked asparagus and dry them in a clean kitchen towel. Serve as soon as possible with a hollandaise sauce that essentially incorporates butter into egg yolks at low heat with constant whisking till it thickens and is flavored with freshly squeezed lemon juice.
An alternate method of cooking the asparagus is to roast them in an oven. Prepare the asparagus as described above, generously rub them with softened butter, sprinkle good salt, spread them in a single layer on a parchment paper lined oven tray and roast them in a 400˚ oven rotating the spears periodically so they get even golden brown streaks.
Just as an asparagus tip emerges from the ground, if it is covered with earth to prevent exposure to sunlight, the chlorophyll pigment remains white resulting in white asparagus, while if allowed to grow uncovered the asparagus spears become green. As one can tell, the former process seems to require more effort. The French geographer, Jean Robert Pitte in his book2 describes a story wherein a famous French chef upon realizing that the people of England where he owned a restaurant preferred green asparagus - unlike in France where the white asparagus is a delicacy - tries to ask a group of farmers in the south of France if they could cultivate green asparagus. The farmers resist the idea because they would have to change their age-old methods until one person noted that there were the occasional asaparagus spears that were not covered by earth that became green, and all that they had to do now was to not cover some of the asparagus tips with earth, in the process resulting in a handsome profit.
I wonder if there are other vegetables that track historically and economically like the asparagus?
In a testament to the modern day value of asparagus in some parts of the world, Alain Passard, chef and owner of a three star Michelin restaurant in Paris recently published a cookbook, The Art of Cooking with Vegetables, where he chooses to use the picture of a bunch of asparagus on his cover page.
1. De re Coquinaria by Apicius (English translation by Joseph Dommers Vehling; Project
2. French Gastronomy: the history and geography of a passion by Jean-Robert Pitte