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Sacred asparagus

April 1, 2010

The last time I tried making asparagus for Easter brunch, I played that trick of putting too little water in the steamer, and we ended up with something that even the addition of a few grains of hickory-smoked salt wouldn’t allow me to pass off as a deliberately smoked asparagus creation, some new hit in the culinary world. There was no raising those morsels from the tomb. As far as my cousin the church music director was concerned, I had jeopardized Easter brunch—no small matter—and I was in danger of not being trusted in the kitchen ever again.

Despite my blunder, I maintain that several factors make asparagus especially well suited for Easter brunch, or any Spring brunch, for that matter.

On a purely logistical level, asparagus reaches its prime in March and April. But perhaps more intriguing are its ties to two iconic symbols of purity and rebirth.

Asparagus belongs to the lily family, whose members furnish entryways and altars with sturdy white blooms this time of year. That is its secret botanical connection to Easter. There is a more obvious and entirely culinary connection: asparagus pairs beautifully with eggs—as an omelet filling, in scrambled eggs, or even in a quiche or savory tart, for which eggs form a base. (Eggs are also the base of Hollandaise sauce, which can be-ribbon bright green asparagus spears for a luxurious touch.)

Asparagus is simple and elegant of shape—long lines and delicate, ornate curling bud tips. Until the 19th century, it was known in England as “sparrow grass,” sounding like the simplest, most ordinary thing in the world. But it has also long been associated with sophisticated cuisine. The French Sun King Louis XIV reportedly had a fondness for the dish, and the potager du roi at Versailles was not without its forced asparagus plot from September onwards; its whimsical shape makes it the subject of esoteric plate compositions; and its finicky growing patterns (it’s only viably productive in its third year, and then only for a few growing seasons) and general fragility once harvested drive high the market price.

Still, should the king call for asparagus at his fanciest feast, cooking methods should remain simple: it’s at its best when boiled or steamed very briefly, lest it become mushy and lose its vibrant color. The most basic French recipe is hot asparagus served simply with butter; or cold with vinaigrette.

Last week, we ate thin asparagus shoots, plunged briefly in salted boiling water and then patted with butter while still sending up tendrils of steam. Nothing simpler; everyone was in heaven.

A post-script: Though I know the almost translucent shoots of white asparagus, “earthed up” so they stay pale, are considered a delicacy in Belgium, in Germany, and even, though it pains me to admit it, in some parts of France—white asparagus stalks give me the creeps. I just can’t help seeing them as akin to little moles, unearthed, blinking into the sunlight.

As far as asparagus imagery goes, I much prefer Russ Parsons’s vision of asparagus as a bouquet of flowers: to satisfy their need for moisture, he recommends that one refrigerate the spears upright in a container of water, like cut flowers, and drape them with a plastic bag. (See How To Pick a Peach.)

One Comment leave one →
  1. April 1, 2010 8:34 pm

    Asparagus is a fantastic vegetable. I’m curious: do you prefer the stem or the flower end? There is a strong divide at my family dinner table between the two. It’s interesting how strong the preferences are. I’m a stem-eater myself, though Mum favors the flowers.

    The post was interesting, smart, and gave me a new food craving, as usual.

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