The table was - and still is - set differently, with the spoon all alone at the top of the plate and the fork turned over on its tines.
Lettuce was never cut; you had to learn to fold it into bite-sized parcels using your knife and fork, which is a real challenge, on a par with learning to use chopsticks.
And asparagus was white.
Americans think of asparagus as a thin green vegetable. That’s because a) it’s a different variety and b) it’s grown above ground, allowing it to produce the chlorophyll that makes the green color. French asparagus was traditionally grown in rows of mounded earth, never seeing the sun until it was harvested. That makes it not only white, but much more tender. And the taste is less bitter.
Lately green asparagus has made great inroads, maybe because it's more labor-friendly, but that's only a hypothesis on my part. Maybe it's just a fad. Or maybe the green type can be harvested faster.
Both are delicious. I prefer my green asparagus in cooked dishes or else grilled over charcoal and then served warm with only a dribble of balsamic vinegar. But white asparagus can’t be beat as an appetizer. Or in a soup.
As May is a good month for fresh asparagus, here’s a recipe that’s easy and fast to make. Plus it leaves you with asparagus tips to use in another dish!
- 1/3 stick (50 g) butter
- 2 shallots, finely diced
- fresh (i.e. uncooked) stems from one bunch of white asparagus
- 4 T (40 g) flour
- 3 c (70 cl) water in which the asparagus was cooked
- 3 c (70 cl) milk
- 8 oz (220 g) canned crab
- ½c (10 cl) crème fraîche
- 1 t salt
- freshly-ground pepper
- Cut off the tips of the asparagus and set them aside for another dish. (You could grill them and serve them over a good steak with sautéed fresh mushrooms.)
- Cut off the tough end of the asparagus stems and peel off the hard outer layer of skin.
- Melt the butter, but don’t let it brown.
- Dice the shallots and sweat them until they’re translucent.
- Meanwhile, boil the asparagus stems for 3-4 minutes. Remove them from the water, but don’t throw the water out.
- Add the flour to the shallots, stir and lower the heat. Simmer for 1 min.
- Pour in 3 c of the water used to cook the asparagus.
- Add the milk and salt and bring to a boil, then let simmer for 15 min.
- Remove any cartilage from the crab.
- Mix the asparagus and the liquid in a blender, then strain.
- Stir in the crème fraîche and pour into individual bowls.
- Decorate with the crab and cilantro.
Crème fraîche isn’t always handy, and when it is, it can be pricy. According to Julia Child, French cream has a butterfat content of 30%, which makes it comparable to American whipping cream. “If it is allowed to thicken with a little buttermilk, it will taste quite a bit like French cream, can be boiled without curdling, and will keep for 10 days or more under refrigeration.” By “a little buttermilk”, Julia means 1 T of buttermilk for 1 c of whipping cream. You just heat it a bit, NOT to boiling by any means, pour it into a partially-covered jar and let stand for a few hours. Then stir and refrigerate.