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.
Cardoons are not easy to find, but at the beginning of the month, they turned up in my market right there next to the puntarelle, I love living in an Italian neighbourhood, and of course they came from California. Now there’s no denying cardoons take work. While the big outside leaves, that can have prickles, and the tops are trimmed, the remaining leaves, which are very bitter, must be removed. Then the coarse strings on the outside of the stems need to be pulled off, use a knife or a vegetable peeler, it’s just like stringing celery. As cardoons brown quickly, place the prepared stems in a bowl of acidulated water.
Then cook them in boiling salted water until tender, they take about 25 minutes, depending on their size and age. Once cooked, drain them and dress them with a vinaigrette, add to a potato salad, or cover them with cheese sauce and make a gratin. A good way for a novice to try them.
In Piedmont cardoons are served raw with bagna calda, a dip made with lots of garlic, anchovies, olive oil and butter. The cardoons in North America are larger and more bitter so most people prefer them cooked. It’s not the bitterness that stops me, I love bitter melon, it’s the texture of the larger stems that are often hollow in the centre. The small, velvety, centre stems, if you take the time to peel them completely, are crunchy, juicy and pleasantly bitter. Perfect to dip in bagna calda.
Cardoons deserve to be more popular. If you see them in your market give them a try, they may look like celery on steroids, but they’re a much more interesting and complex vegetable.
You could add a sauce, but when the sweetbread is this good it needs nothing else at all.