I’m an asparagus snob. For me asparagus are white and fat. You have to peel white asparagus, so you want something left when you finish and I’d rather eat three fat ones than half a dozen skinny ones. When I first came to France eons ago, green asparagus, the only ones I was familiar with at the time, were no where to be found. You could find skinny wild green asparagus, but everything else is white. Today green are everywhere. To my taste white asparagus are superior to green. They are the same plant except the white ones are buried under a mound of sandy soil. This protects them from the light and stops the formation of chlorophyl resulting in a pure asparagus taste, free of the grassiness of the green ones.
One of the main reasons we come to Paris in the spring is to eat white asparagus. I just cook them, my husband does all the work. They must be trimmed at the base and carefully peeled, a small knife is the best tool. You can see how much of the stringy outside he removes, that’s why you buy fat ones.
Now there are always instructions to tie asparagus into neat bundles and steam them standing up. Well bundles are a good idea if you are cooking large numbers, and as for standing them up, how many people own a special steamer for asparagus? I usually cook 12 to 16 at a time so I let them float around in my roasting pan. The roasting pan, on an oval burner, is ideal. You can move the pan so most of the heat is concentrated to one side. (You can also do this with frying pan on a regular burner if you’re careful). Then you place the asparagus in the pan so their bases are over the heat and the tips are further away. The tips of white asparagus are more robust than green and the stalks are uniform, which makes them easier to cook.
Put the asparagus in the pan to make sure they fit in a single layer and cover with cold water. Remove the asparagus, add about 1 teaspoon of salt and a good pinch of sugar to the pan. Bring the water to a boil, add the asparagus, bases towards the heat and lower the heat so that the water simmers. No matter what you read you need to cook white asparagus longer than green, at least 15 and maybe 25 minutes. The fatter and the older they are the longer they’ll take to cook.
Test by piercing the base of the asparagus with a cake tester, or a fine skewer. You want them cooked NOT crunchy. You also don’t want them overcooked and mushy. Pay attention. Drain them well on a towel, to help absorb the water, and keep them warm if you plan to serve them hot. You can cook them ahead of time and reheat them in the oven.
Asparagus are often served cold with mayonnaise, or a vinaigrette. My friend Caroline makes a sauce with an egg yolk, mustard and crème fraîche, which she often “lightens” with a stiffly beaten egg white. I prefer them hot and I make a sauce maltaise, a variation on hollandaise with blood orange juice. The blood orange and white asparagus seasons overlap and they match brilliantly. This photo show another good mach for asparagus – scallops Here they are both served with a blood orange butter sauce. Just reduce the zest and juice of a blood orange down to a couple of tablespoons, add 1 tablespoon whipping cream and then whisk in about 100g of unsalted butter, making sure it emulsifies into the sauce and does not melt in.
Simmering asparagus is my main method for cooking this fabulous vegetable, but this spring I discovered another thanks to a dinner at Spring restaurant. More soon.