On a Tuesday afternoon at two o'clock, the dining room…
Ask Amédé Lamarche, culinary programs coordinator at Conestoga College School of Hospitality and Culinary Arts, about asparagus, and his response is, um, not at all reserved.
“Love, love, love when it comes to asparagus!” exclaims Lamarche.
He adds that the green stalk is a family favourite. “I’m not sure if it’s because it’s simply delicious, or that it says to me that it’s finally spring. Either way, it’s on our table at least three times a week this time of year.”
Indeed, early in spring, we see three or four fresh ingredients – the first harvest – on our tables. Maple syrup, fiddle heads and rhubarb are popular, yes, but it seems to be asparagus, as Lamarche’s exuberance indicates, that captures the imagination of chefs, diners and home cooks alike.
Harbinger of summer
Asparagus is a harbinger of summer, a clarion that fresh local produce is on its way once again after the chill of winter. Head out to an asparagus farm and buy and freshly picked spear and eat it while it’s still warm: it will taste of the sun.
It’s also a memory and a comfort food too, according to Conestoga instructor Philippe Saraiva.
“Growing up, my mom cooked mainly white asparagus. Mimosa-style was her favourite. Just steam them standing up in a narrow, deep asparagus pot. She then sprinkled with chopped hard-boiled egg and a citrus vinaigrette,” Saraiva says. “This brings back a lot of memories, so I need to go shopping for this year’s asparagus at Barrie’s!
Brad Lomanto, executive chef of Bloom Restaurant at Conestoga, agrees that asparagus is a harbinger of warmer weather and longer days.
“I love asparagus and more so the notion of spring and new beginnings,” Lomanto says. “I like the fat ones cooked a little past al dente, and preferably grilled for a little charred flavour. It’s even better on the smoker or over fire to get the smoke in that way. Then I cover it in Hollandaise.”
The plant, a rhizome that grows underground, flourishes quite well in Waterloo Region and further south in the province. The early tender stalks are a bright green with a purple-tinged tip. The earlier in the season, the sweeter the asparagus; as the spring rolls through its prime months of May and June and approaches July, the rhizomes begin to weaken and become depleted leaving the asparagus less flavourful. Because asparagus must be picked by hand, it can be a touch more expensive.
As for the odoriferous “asparagus pee” phenomenon (if you must know), it happens to many people who eat asparagus but not everyone. A compound called asparagusic acid is metabolized into a chemical which is related to methanthiol – the essence of skunk spray.
A centuries’ old dish
Roman Emperor Julius Caesar simply ate asparagus with his hands, and ancient chefs and inventors created special cooking vessels which kept the thicker stalks submerged in the cooking liquid while leaving the delicate tips above water to be steamed (see Saraiva’s comments, above). There were also serving bowls designed for the shape of asparagus which had hollow sides that were then filled with boiling water to keep the freshly cooked asparagus warm. That’s a great idea.
Beurre noisette, with its dark hazelnut flavour and colour, has been drizzled over asparagus for centuries. Asparagi alla Parmigiana is an authentic dish of Emilia-Romagna, wherein resides Parma, Italy: cooked asparagus tips are sprinkled generously with Parmgiano-Reggiano cheese and melted butter. In Tuscany, asparagus soup is made with saffron, pine nuts and pistachios.
White asparagus, a more expensive version of the vegetable, but one that retains a certain perceived luxury quality, is popular in Europe. It is grown beneath mounds of earth or other covering to prohibit chlorophyll production; accordingly, it has to be harvested by being cut underground, a labour-intensive process that adds to its cost.
Using the time-honoured mechanical method of preparing asparagus, gently bend the stalk with fingers holding opposite ends aiming for the point where woody and tender meet, and snap it off. You can finish the preparation by shaving the woody end with a harp peeler to create a more uniform size for cooking. Then again, you can also just make a rough collective estimate of the woody location and cut the bunch with a knife all at once and be done with it.
Asparagus loses its freshness very quickly – in a matter of hours, actually, and more rapidly than other vegetables, especially in the first 24 hours. Store asparagus cool and away from light. The stalk continues to draw on its sugars becoming tougher and less juicy. So to re-invigorate it before cooking, give it some sweetness: add about a teaspoon of sugar to a half-cup of water and soak the asparagus before cooking.
Asparagus and butter
In terms of ways to serve asparagus, simple is often best. Do the Julius Caesar trick: just prepare the asparagus spears with a dose of melted butter. Adding some fennel to the butter gives a lovely anise flavour to the spears.
Asparagus and Parmigiano-Reggiano
“I love it grilled, drizzled with a bit of olive oil, salt and pepper and a squeeze of lemon,” says Lamarche citing an excellent way to highlight this bit of early summer. “You can also blanch it in salted boiling, sauté in butter and top it with the Parm.”
Asparagus and mushroom ragoût
If he’s lucky enough to find some morels, Lamarche says he’ll add asparagus to a mushroom ragoût. “I might toss in some fresh peas too and a bit of brown chicken stock – and again, Parmigiano-Reggiano and lemon to finish.”
When asparagus season is winding down, try a cream of asparagus soup; garnish it with the delicate tips and a drizzle of cream or olive oil.
Asparagus and ramp butter
Saraiva says that the family loved asperges des bois from the Pyrenees, a slightly different species. “It’s blanched and then sautéed in beurre d’ail des ours, ramp butter. I loved it when mom browned the butter so it was a bit nutty,” he says.
Perhaps this classic Escoffier preparation is ready for a culinary comeback? To make your own, dress cooked hot asparagus with hard-boiled egg yolk that has been passed through a fine-meshed sieve, drizzle with melted butter and golden-toasted breadcrumbs. There you go: asparagus Polonaise.
There are few breakfasts as delicious as an omelette with fresh asparagus tips and a few scallions, cut on the bias, for garnish. Try it. So simple.
As a salad, mix grilled asparagus pieces with a bit of pesto, Parmigiano-Reggiano, and perhaps some slices of smoked salmon. Toss with olive oil and lemon juices, a few croutons and top with a sunny-side up egg. Garnish with Parm shavings.
While fresh is best, remember that asparagus is remarkable as a preserve, so consider a quick pickle: you’ll be able to enjoy the summer’s bounty in the chilly depths of February.
Put together a mix of vinegars with about 100 grams of sugar per litre of liquid. Add peppers, spices, herbs like tarragon or rosemary and garlic. Boil the mixture, pour it over the asparagus in jars and store in the fridge. Enjoy!