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By Russ Parsons
Los Angeles Times
I love brightly colored eggs and bunny rabbits as much as the next guy. But if you want a concrete example of rebirth and the potential for new beginnings, just walk an asparagus field in early spring. What a few weeks before had been acres of brown raw dirt is now studded with hundreds of bright green asparagus spears poking through. In a month or so, the harvest finished, it will be a waist-high forest of ferns.
This is one metaphor that never fails to make me hungry. Over the past couple of weeks I've eaten asparagus for dinner at least three times. That may not seem like a lot, but when I say "eaten asparagus for dinner," that's just what I mean: My dinner was asparagus. OK, maybe some bread, too. And a glass of wine (though asparagus can be a tough match, Navarro Gewurztraminer is perfect).
The first night, I boiled it and dressed it with just a little very fruity olive oil, lemon juice and a generous sprinkling of crunchy sea salt. The next time, I steamed it and served it with a brown butter sauce and minced herbs. Then one night last week I repeated that dish but topped it with a softly fried egg — when you break the egg yolk, it flows out and combines with the brown butter to make a kind of deconstructed hollandaise. Be sure to serve any of these with plenty of buttered bread for sopping up the juices.
You get the picture.
This isn't just any asparagus, of course. Though the technique will work well with medium or even thin spears, to get the full effect (and to understand my insatiable hunger for them), you really need to try it with the jumbo asparagus. (All sizes of asparagus can come from the same set of roots — the biggest come from the very healthiest part, usually near the center.)
These spears are about as big around as my thumb — five or six make a whole pound. Cooked to the point of perfect tenderness, they have a texture somewhere between meat and butter. They almost melt when you chew them, with only a slight fibrous crunch remaining.
Cooking takes only about seven or eight minutes, no matter whether you're boiling or steaming them. To tell exactly when they're done, poke a spear with a paring knife; it should slide in easily. Once that happens, lift a spear and it should be just soft enough to sag slightly.
Asparagus this thick does need to be peeled (really thin asparagus, which I use for pastas and risottos, doesn't; medium asparagus can go either way).
You also need to cut away some of the base, which is dense and too chewy. Some cooks recommend holding the asparagus in two hands and snapping — they say it'll break where the spear turns tender. But in my experience, it always breaks well past that point; you'll wind up throwing away a pretty good bit of edible asparagus.
I'm greedy enough that that makes a difference. So I just cut off the very worst of the base — about 1 1/4 to 2 inches. To get rid of the last bit of toughness, peel the asparagus starting from the tip with a very light pressure and then gradually increase the pressure as you get to the base, where the toughest fibers are. Works every time.
There is something utterly compelling about this giant asparagus once it's cooked. It's not just the size, though that's certainly impressive enough. The peeling method leaves a slightly crude appearance, and with the contrast of dark green tips and pale, glowing spears, the asparagus looks as if it's been roughly carved from jade.
It's gorgeous. When I served it the other night at dinner for a bunch of pretty tough-to-please eaters, everyone huddled around the platter with their iPhones out, snapping pictures.
Asparagus like this is a prime example of the principal rule of fresh, local, seasonal cooking: When you have great ingredients, you don't have to do much to make a great dish. I love this approach because, frankly, I'm no Thomas Keller. ("I know Thomas Keller; Thomas Keller is a friend of mine; and I, sir, am no Thomas Keller.")
But this is the kind of elemental cooking that home cooks can excel at. The only thing even a great chef could do to make it better is add a flourish or two — not that there would be anything wrong with that, as witnessed by the-man-his-own-self's version of asparagus with sauce mimosa from "Bouchon." Basically, Keller takes a home cook's classic (asparagus, vinaigrette, chopped hard-cooked eggs) and adds a central pool of very pretty asparagus coulis. Nice.
STEAMED ASPARAGUS WITH BROWN BUTTER SAUCE
• 3 pounds asparagus, thickest you can find
• 6 tablespoons butter
• Juice of 1 lemon
• 2 tablespoons minced chervil mixed with 1 tablespoon minced parsley, or 3 tablespoons minced parsley
• Sea salt
Cut off the tough bases of the asparagus about 1 1/4 inches from the bottom, leaving the stalks as close to equal in length as possible. (Discard the tough ends.) Peel the asparagus: Using a vegetable peeler, start about an inch below the tip area and peel toward the base, increasing the pressure as you go, so you take more peel at the tougher end. There should be no dark green peel left below the tip area.
Tie the asparagus in a bundle with cotton twine. Bring water to a boil in the bottom of a deep steamer. When the water is boiling rapidly, place the asparagus in the steamer basket and cover tightly. Cook until the asparagus is tender enough to be easily pierced with a sharp knife and wiggle slightly when shaken, 7 to 8 minutes.
While the asparagus is cooking, melt the butter in a small saucepan over medium heat. Cook until the butter has begun to darken slightly and takes on a nutty color and aroma. Do not let the butter scorch. As soon as the butter has turned nutty brown, remove the pan from the heat and squeeze the juice of 1/4 of a lemon through a strainer into the butter. It will sizzle, so be careful. Taste and add more lemon if the flavor isn't sharp enough. Add about half the herbs and set aside.
When the asparagus is cooked, place a dish towel on a serving platter and lay the bundled spears on top. Cut the twine and let the asparagus roll free. Blot gently with the towel to remove any excess moisture.
Carefully remove the towel and pour the butter mixture over the asparagus. Toss gently with tongs to evenly coat with the butter. Sprinkle on the remaining herbs to taste and season generously with sea salt. Serve warm.
Makes 6 servings.
• Per serving: 129 calories; 3 g protein; 5 g carbohydrates; 2 g fiber; 12 g fat; 7 g saturated fat; 31 mg cholesterol; 2 g sugar; 18 mg sodium
This recipe is adapted from Thomas Keller's "Bouchon."
CHILLED ASPARAGUS WITH VINAIGRETTE AND EGGS MIMOSA
For the vinaigrette:
• 3/4 cup Dijon mustard
• 1/4 cup red wine vinegar
• 1 1/4 cups canola oil
Combine the mustard and vinegar in a blender and blend at medium speed for about 15 seconds. With the machine running, slowly drizzle in 1/4 cup of the oil. Don't be tempted to add all the oil to the blender or the vinaigrette will become too thick. It should be very creamy.
Transfer the vinaigrette to a small bowl and, whisking constantly, slowly stream in the remaining 1 cup oil. (This makes about 2 cups vinaigrette, more than is needed for the remainder of the recipe. The dressing can be refrigerated for up to 2 weeks; should the vinaigrette separate, use a blender or immersion blender to re-emulsify it.)
For the asparagus:
• 2 pounds medium asparagus
• 1 tablespoon plus 2 teaspoons extra virgin olive oil, divided, plus extra for drizzling
• Kosher salt
• 4 hard-cooked large eggs
• 2 large radishes
• Scant 3 tablespoons vinaigrette
• Freshly ground black pepper
• 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon minced chives
Remove and discard the tough ends of the asparagus. Line up the asparagus spears, tips facing the same direction, on a cutting board and trim the ends so that the spears are of equal length, reserving the trimmings. Cut the trimmings into 1-inch lengths and reserve 2 cups of them for the sauce; do not peel them as the peel will make the sauce a vivid green. Set aside. Peel the asparagus spears, beginning about 1 inch below the base of the tip.
Bring a large pot of generously salted water to a boil and prepare an ice bath.
Divide the asparagus spears into 4 piles, again with the tips facing the same way. Cut 4 pieces of kitchen twine about 2 feet long and tie the spears into secure bundles.
When the water is boiling, add the asparagus and blanch until just tender, 4 to 6 minutes. Transfer to the ice bath, but leave the water boiling.
Add the trimmings to the boiling water and blanch until tender enough to puree, 4 to 7 minutes.
Meanwhile, when the asparagus bundles are cold, transfer to paper towels, remove the twine and drain, then dry well. Cover and refrigerate the asparagus for at least 15 minutes. (The asparagus can be prepared to this point up to a day ahead.)
When the asparagus trimmings are tender, remove them and reserve about 1/4 cup of the water. Drain the asparagus pieces in a strainer and immediately plunge the strainer into the ice bath. Once the asparagus are cool, remove them from the strainer and drain them on paper towels.
Add the asparagus trimmings to a blender, along with just enough of the reserved cooking liquid to allow the blade to turn, about 3 tablespoons. Pulse to break up the asparagus, then blend to a puree. It may be necessary to stop and scrape down the sides of the blender several times; be patient. Add more of the cooking liquid only if necessary. When the puree is smooth, blend in the 1 tablespoon oil. Season to taste with salt. Strain the puree if there are any fibers in it. (You should have about 1/4 cup. Cover and refrigerate the puree for at least 15 minutes, or up to a day.)
To complete: Remove the yolks from the hard-cooked eggs. Reserve the whites for another use. Push the yolks through the large holes of a grater, then finely chop.
Wash the radishes and cut off and discard the tops and bottoms. Thinly slice the radishes, then cut the slices into thin sticks.
Arrange the asparagus on a work surface in 4 stacks, with all the tips facing the same direction. Sprinkle each stack with a pinch of salt.
Spoon about 2 tablespoons of the asparagus puree into a pool in the center of each serving plate. Top with the asparagus spears. Spoon about 2 teaspoons of vinaigrette over the center of each mound of spears. Sprinkle 2 tablespoons chopped egg yolks over the vinaigrette on each portion, then sprinkle the yolks with a pinch each of kosher salt and a few grinds of black pepper.
Toss the radishes with the chives, 2 teaspoons of the olive oil, and salt and pepper to taste. Divide the radish mixture between each serving, placing it on top of the egg yolks and drizzle lightly with additional oil. Serve cold.
• Per serving: 211 calories; 6 g protein; 5 g carbohydrates; 2 g fiber; 19 g fat; 3 g saturated fat; 213 mg cholesterol; 2 g sugar; 96 mg sodium