Everyone knows what asparagus looks like. It’s dark green and thin, with a tip that looks like a spear. (Which is why one of my children called it "speared grass".) So imagine my surprise when I ordered it for the first time and saw something entirely different arrive on the plate!
In France, an asperge is white and ... well, stout. About the same size around as your thumb - and leggy, up to a good 10 inches long. It’s also a lot more tender.
The reason for all that is that it’s grown underground and never sees sunlight, so it never makes the chlorophyll that would turn it green. It’s planted in mounds of earth that cover each shoot to the very tip and then picked before it sticks its head out. How the farmer knows when that magic moment is, I can’t tell you. But then I’m no farmer.
Shortly before the turn of this century, American style asparagus began to appear in fancy restaurants in Paris. It was considered very exotic. Then the really fancy restaurants started serving wild asparagus, pencil thin and far less meaty with a tip that may be almost straw-like. Nowadays you can find green asparagus all over France (maybe because it’s simpler to grow, with no mounding required). As for white asperges, I even found some today at my local supermarket here in Ann Arbor (a foodie’s town par excellence).
April is the month of asparagus, one of the first crops of spring. So try preparing some with either of these two typically French sauces.
Green and white asparagus are cooked the same way. And according to Julia Child, the best way is "the French way". She said she tried them all. This is her method:
- Use a paring knife to peel off the outer skin. Holding the spear with the tip toward you, use a paring knife to shave off the outer skin of the butt end so the green flesh is visible, then shave less deep as you work toward the tender part near the tip. Also shave off any scales that are below the tip. Wash in a basin of cold water and then drain.
- Line up the asparagus tips in bunches about 3½" in diameter and tie them together with cooking string a bit below the tips and again about 2/3 of the way down the stem. Cut off the butt ends to make the spears the same length.
- Bring salted water to a boil in a pot wide enough to hold the asparagus horizontally. After laying the bundles in the water, bring it back to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer uncovered until you can easily stick a knife into the thick end (about 12-15 min). Lift the bundles out with 2 forks, one snagging each string. Hold them up to drain, then put them on a towel. Cut the string immediately and go on to the next bundle. Make sure the asparagus is not overcooked but is well-drained.
- Cooked asparagus will stay warm for 20 minutes if left covered with the towel. If you’ve made it ahead to be served cold, let it stand in one layer only.
Six fat spears are a good portion per person.
- Vinaigrette: Stir ½-1 t Dijon mustard into 2 T of vinegar until well blended. Add salt and freshly ground pepper. Then slowly pour in 6 T of olive oil, stirring until entirely blended and somewhat thickened. The right proportion is 1 part vinegar to 3-4 parts oil. Makes about ½ c of vinaigrette. You can add some minced or dried herbs if you want: parsley, chives, tarragon, basil. You could also use lemon juice instead of vinegar.
- Mayonnaise: Homemade mayonnaise is so much better than store-bought! With a good food processor, it’s not hard, and any leftovers will keep in the fridge for a few days. Put 1 egg and 2 egg yolks in the processor and beat for 1 minute. Without turning the machine off, add 1 T of wine vinegar or lemon juice, ½ t salt and 1/4 t of Dijon mustard and beat for another half minute. DO NOT STOP BEATING as you start pouring in 1 c of olive oil very slowly; the oil should be at room temperature. As soon as it starts to thicken, "the crisis is over" as Julia puts it. Then thin the mixture with another T of vinegar or lemon juice, and only then continue with the remaining 1 c of oil. Mix until it has thickened. Correct for consistency and seasoning.