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Asparagus - The Supreme Vegetable

by Robert J. Headrick, Jr.
From the pages of Epicurean When the Roman emperor Augustus wanted something done quickly he commanded it to be done "citius quam asparagi coquintur" (quicker than you can cook asparagus). This admonition from Augustus describes for us the manner in which most asparagus aficionados believe asparagus should be cooked: the quicker the better. There is nothing quite like a fresh bunch of plump, straight stalks with flower buds tightly closed, right out of the garden and into boiling water. Cooked al dente, seasoned with salt and fresh cracked black pepper, and coated lightly with melted butter, it's no wonder that asparagus has enjoyed such a long and noble history.

Officially known as asparagus officinalis, asparagus is a member of the lily family. It's native to East Central Europe, yet grows wild in many parts of the world today. As a matter of fact, its appearance in the wild provided Euell Gibbons with the title of his 1962 book, Stalking the Wild Asparagus. In his book Gibbons shares with readers how as a young boy he found asparagus growing in the wild and would on a weekly basis take a pail-full home. He relates how his family ate it boiled and buttered, creamed, served over toast and made into creamy soups. He was sure his family must have grown tired of asparagus, but they never complained. Only later in his life did his mother confide in him that she was actually giving some of the bounty to neighbors.

The Greeks were cultivating asparagus as early as 600 B.C. By 200 B.C. Cato, a Roman author, described its cultivation and by 75 A.D. another Roman writer, Pliny was complaining about the amount of time it took to grow respectable asparagus (so fat that three spears made a pound), when it grew wild locally.

As centuries passed, asparagus continued to garner its share of interest as a vegetable. Crusaders imported seeds according the Chronicle of Worms (1241). By 1567 Germans were growing it in Stuttgart, and by the end of the 16th century asparagus production was well under way in the south of France. Louis XIV liked it so much that he had it forced in hothouse beds at Versailles. Asparagus reached the shores of the United States by 1672, and Jefferson mentioned growing it in his garden plans of 1775. Asparagus was first planted in California in the 1860's in the San Joaquin Delta.

Asparagus was actually a medicine long before it was considered a food. Galen, a Greek Physician, described it as "heating, cleansing, and desicative. It relieves inflammation of the stomach, relaxes the bowels, makes urine, and helps the weak. It removes obstruction of the liver and kidneys." A variety of medicinal concoctions were produced from the sprouts, stems, roots and seeds of asparagus. Although today few hold to any real medicinal value associated with asparagus, it is nevertheless rich in vitamins, minerals, and dietary fiber.

Asparagus Stalks

Today, California leads the production of asparagus in the United States with more than 50,000 metric tons harvested annually. Other states that contribute significant amounts of asparagus annually include Michigan, New Jersey, Oregon and Utah. Although asparagus is widely available almost yearly now, many still prefer the taste of "in-season" homegrown asparagus, available at local farmers markets.

Asparagus is harvested when the spears emerge in early spring. Typically the harvest season lasts only 60 to 90 days. Most beds produce up to 30 years, with the largest output between the fifth and twelfth year, followed by a decline after that. When buying a bunch of asparagus, its weight might vary from three-fourths of a pound to over two pounds. Generally, 1 pound of fresh asparagus will provide 2 cups, cut up. A 10-ounce can (if one dares to use the canned variety), amounts to about 1 1/2 cups, cut up.

Spears of asparagus are graded based on the diameter of the spear, which is measured 9" down from the tip. In a single pound, you will find 30 to 40 spears of small asparagus (not less than 3/16" in diameter); 20 to 30 spears of standard (not less than 5/16" in diameter); 10 to 20 spears of large (not less than 7/16" in diameter); 5 to10 spears of jumbo (not less than 13/16" in diameter) and 6 or fewer spears of colossal (approximately 1" or better in diameter). Although the dimensions may vary slightly, the number of spears per pound is fairly typical.

When preparing to cook asparagus, break the spear at the tender point (by bending the spear it will break naturally at its most tender spot). Its amazing to discover that almost all the spears in a bunch will generally break at about the same point, and that when standing the bunch up, all will be almost equal in height. You can boil, steam, roast, stir-fry or grill asparagus, as well as make it the center of attention as demonstrated in the classic recipes that accompany this article. It's important to recognize that the size of the spear (small, standard, large, jumbo, colossal) determines how long to cook it, and that the bottoms require more time than the tips. Before deciding which of the classic recipes to try, consider the following quick and easy methods of preparing asparagus. Each of these quick methods imparts a certain flavor to asparagus, and in every case offers an exciting way to eat fresh asparagus (these methods do not work when using canned varieties). When cooking asparagus upright, this is called the Puritan (upright) method. This method dates back to Roman times and is the only way to adjust for differences in cooking the base and tips of the stalk. Laying the spears flat in boiling liquid is referred to as the Epicurean (reclining) method. Cutting the spears diagonally and cooking them in a wok or hot skillet is called the Oriental (on-the-bias) method.

Basic Cooking Methods for Fresh Asparagus

BOIL: Boiling asparagus lets you add additional flavors (chicken stock, white wine, court bouillon). Infusing the water with garlic, shallots, bay leaves or other herbs adds a nice flavor as well. Lay spears flat in a shallow pan, sprinkle a few grains of kosher salt over them, cover them slightly with the cooking liquid, and boil. Covering the stalks with a damp paper towel helps keep the flavor in.

STEAM: Fresh asparagus is best when steamed. Steaming asparagus preserves the flavor. This is best done in a double boiler or asparagus cooker. When steaming a bunch you can accommodate for the differences in cooking time by arranging the spears upright and placing them in about two to three inches of water and salt. Cover and cook for about five to ten minutes, depending on the size of the spears.

STIR-FRY: Stir-frying takes very little time and is best done in butter or olive oil, or a combination of both. Cut the spears diagonally. This method offers a crispy, golden texture to the spears.

ROAST or GRILL: To roast or grill asparagus, brush each stalk with olive oil, and salt lightly. If roasting, place the spears on a baking sheet or dish in an oven for 10 minutes at 425° to 475° F. If grilling the spears, place them over medium-low coals and turn frequently. When each spear is marked with brown spots and is tender, remove from heat and serve. Roasting asparagus imparts a nutty sweet flavor, while grilling it adds a smoky flavor.

White Asparagus

White asparagus is created by mounding earth over the spears as they try to push out of the ground, thus keeping them from sunlight and the photosynthesis that would turn them green. Because it is labor-intensive, white asparagus typically sells for two to three times as much as the green-skinned variety.

White asparagus often has a tough, bitter peel that must be removed before cooking. To cook white asparagus, trim the lower 1/2 inch from the ends and peel each spear. Be careful because the spears are brittle and break easily. Gather spears into bundles of 6 or so spears, tie loosely with kitchen string and cook standing in simmering water (water, salt, lemon juice and butter).

Although white asparagus can be substituted in many of the recipes included here, the earthy, subtle taste of white asparagus is best enjoyed in a soup, or by itself with lemon butter and freshly cracked pepper.

Asparagus Recipes

For those special occasions, consider any one of the following classic ways to serve asparagus. Each of these classics can be prepared with fresh or canned asparagus. Of course, there will obviously be a difference in texture when using the canned varieties, as most lack crispiness and are often soggy.

Asparagus Canapes
1 lb Asparagus
1 t. Salt
12 Slices of bread
1 T. Olive oil (or butter)
1 c. Mayonnaise
1 c. Tomato aspic (see recipe below)
Quick Tomato Aspic
1 Package gelatin mix
1 c. Water
1 c. Tomato Soup, not diluted (you can substitute tomato sauce)

Combine water and tomato soup and boil over medium heat. Add gelatin mix to boiling liquid and mix well. If you want the aspic to be spicy, consider adding a few drops of Tabasco or substitute Bloody Mary mix for the tomato soup.

Clean the asparagus. Then blanch the asparagus spears in a shallow skillet by laying them flat and covering with salted water. Place a damp paper towel over the spears and cook over medium heat until boiling, about 3 or 4 minutes. After the spears cook, remove them from the stove and place them in a bowl of ice water to prevent further cooking and to set the color. Cut bread into rounds with a biscuit cutter. Heat butter or olive oil in a skillet and fry rounds of bread on one side until golden brown. Spread the uncooked side with mayonnaise.

Quick and easy mayonnaise:
2 egg yolks*
Salt and white pepper to taste
1 t. Dijon mustard
1 t. Lemon juice
1 c. Olive or vegetable oil
*Egg Beaters work fine if your are afraid of uncooked eggs.
Beat egg yolks, salt, pepper, mustard and lemon juice together with wire whisk. Gradually add oil until the mayonnaise thickens.

Cut the asparagus spears to fit onto the bread rounds (ideally each spear should include a tip). Then when the aspic thickens, pour a small amount over each canape. Set aside to become firm.

1 lb Asparagus
1 t. Salt
12 Slices of bread
1 T. Olive oil (or butter)
1 c. Mayonnaise
4 Hard boiled eggs

Prepare fingers of bread (bread sliced lengthwise with crust removed). Toast on one side. Spread the untoasted side with mayonnaise. Arrange a layer of sliced egg on the mayonnaise, place an asparagus spear on top and garnish with pimiento slices.

Cream of Asparagus Soup
2 c. Fresh asparagus, chopped (reserve tips for final presentation)
2 T. Butter
2 T. Flour
3 c. Chicken broth
1 t. Salt
1/2 t. White pepper
1/4 t. Nutmeg
1 c. Heavy cream (or milk)

Place asparagus in shallow pan and cover with boiling water. Add salt to boiling water and cook asparagus until just tender, about 3-4 minutes. Drain. Put asparagus and 3 cups chicken broth in blender and blend until smooth. Strain and reserve mixture.
Melt butter in small saucepan, over medium heat, and add flour, salt, pepper and nutmeg. Stir until roux forms and thickens slightly. Gradually add chicken broth and asparagus mixture, stirring until blended and smooth. Cook over medium heat for about 8-10 minutes. Do not boil. Add cream and asparagus tips, stir until creamy and serve.

Variation: Add 2 cups of cooked tomatoes, celery or potatoes.

Asparagus Au Gratin
1 lb. Asparagus (about 20-25 spears)
1 c. Grated cheese
3 or 4 Slices day old bread
1 Clove garlic, finely chopped
Salt and pepper to taste
Olive oil

Arrange asparagus spears in shallow baking dish and drizzle lightly with olive oil. Salt and pepper to taste. Top with grated cheese.

Take three or four slices of day old bread (sourdough is great), cut-off the crusts. Break up and pulverize in a food processor. Then in a small pan toast the crumbs slightly in olive oil and garlic over medium heat. Remove from the heat, drain on a paper towel and sprinkle over the asparagus and cheese.

Bake in a moderate oven (about 350° F) until crumbs are brown and cheese is melted, about 10-12 minutes. Serve immediately.

Variation: When preparing Asparagus Au Gratin, if you don't cover the asparagus with grated cheese, you will be preparing Asparagus Camille. When preparing Asparagus Camille, simply cover the asparagus with bread crumbs, and then place a small amount of butter or olive oil over the crumbs and bake.

Asparagus Royale
1 lb. Asparagus
1 c. Milk
2 Eggs
5-6 Slices day old bread
2 T. Butter or margarine
1 t. Salt
Fresh ground pepper

Cut asparagus into half-inch lengths. Heat milk in small saucepan until warm. Break bread slices into small pieces and pulverize in food processor. Add bread crumbs to warm milk. Add butter, salt, and pepper to mixture. Beat the eggs well and add them along with the asparagus to the bread crumb mixture and blend all ingredients. Pour into buttered mold or custard cups, cover closely and steam in bain marie (boiling water) for about 45 minutes.

Asparagus Quiche
1 9-inch Pastry shell, uncooked
1 lb. Asparagus
3 Eggs
1 1/2 c. Milk or cream
1/2 t. Salt
Fresh ground pepper
Dash nutmeg
2 T.s Flour
1 1/2 c. Shredded Swiss cheese Place pastry shell in pie plate and line shell with foil. Fill the lined shell with dry beans. Bake in 450° F oven for 5 minutes. Remove from oven and set aside. Reduce oven temperature to 325° F.

Cut asparagus into 1-inch pieces. Steam until tender, approximately 5 to 7 minutes.

In medium mixing bowl blend eggs, milk or cream, salt, pepper and nutmeg. Stir in cooked asparagus.
Toss cheese with flour and sprinkle in prebaked pastry shell. Pour egg mixture over cheese. Bake for 35 to 45 minutes at 325° F or until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean. Let stand 10 minutes before slicing and serving.

Serve with a hollandaise or mornay sauce.

Asparagus Divan
4 Chicken breasts
1 lb. Asparagus
1 T. Melted butter or margarine
1 Can condensed cream of chicken soup
1 t. Lemon juice
Salt and ground pepper to taste
1 c. Shredded American cheese
1/2 c. Toasted slivered almonds

Heat oven to 350° F. Arrange chicken breasts in baking dish; top with asparagus and butter. In a small mixing bowl combine soup (undiluted), lemon juice, salt and pepper. Spoon mixture over asparagus; sprinkle with cheese and almonds. Bake at 350° F for 25 to 30 minutes or until creamy and bubbling.

Asparagus Rarebit
2 T. Butter
2 T. Flour
1/2 t. Salt
1/4 t. Freshly ground pepper
Dash cayenne pepper
2 t. Dry mustard
1 T. Worcestershire sauce
1 c. Ale
1 1/2 c. Flour
4 c. Shredded cheddar cheese
1 lb. Asparagus
Toast triangles

In double boiler or medium sauce pan over medium heat, melt butter and add flour. Mix until a roux is formed. Add salt, pepper, cayenne, mustard and Worcestershire sauce. Mix well. Next add ale, blend all ingredients together and bring mixture to a bare simmer.

Cut asparagus into 1-inch lengths, reserving the tips for garnish. Steam the spears in salted water for approximately 5 to 7 minutes. Remove from heat, drain and set aside.

In a mixing bowl toss flour and shredded cheese together. Gradually add cheese to the saucepan, stirring until completely melted. Allow the mixture to simmer, but do not boil. Just prior to serving add asparagus to the cheese mixture. Stir the mixture and allow it to cook for approximately 5 minutes. Serve on toast triangles and garnish with asparagus tips.

Asparagus Polonaise
1 lb. Asparagus
2 Hard-boiled eggs, chopped
3-4 Slices day old bread
4 T. Butter
Parsley for garnish
Hard boil two eggs and set aside to cool. Boil asparagus spears in salted boiling water for approximately 5 minutes. Remove from heat and set aside to cool.

Break bread into small pieces and pulverize in food processor. Melt butter in small saucepan, add bread crumbs and brown. Remove from heat, chop eggs and add to bread crumb mixture.
Arrange asparagus spears in baking dish and cover with egg and bread crumb mixture.

Heat under broiler for 2 to 3 minutes and serve.

Asparagus Mousseline
Serving this recipe requires the preparation of a hollandaise sauce, which may or may not be in your repertoire of quick and easy sauces. If the thought of preparing a hollandaise sauce frightens you, fear not. It is really nothing more than a variation of the mayonnaise that you prepared earlier for Asparagus Timbales. You may recall also that it accompanies Asparagus Royale.

4 Egg yolks, at room temperature
l T. Water
1 t. Lemon juice
1/2 c. Butter, diced and at room temperature
1 T. Lemon juice
Salt and pepper to taste
Paprika or cayenne pepper, if desired
1/2 c. whipping cream
1 lb. Asparagus

In the top of a double boiler over low heat,* whisk egg yolks, water and lemon juice until fluffy. Add diced butter piece by piece, making certain that butter is incorporated completely before adding the next piece.

Continue until all butter has been used. As soon as the sauce becomes thick and creamy, remove from the hot water and set into cold water to reduce the temperature. Salt and pepper to taste. Paprika or cayenne pepper can also be added if you so desire. Finally, whip the whipping cream and add to the sauce.

Cook the asparagus in whatever manner you choose (I prefer steaming).

Spoon the hollandaise sauce over the asparagus and serve with fresh cracked of pepper.

*If you have don't have a double boiler, you can quickly create one by putting water in a saucepan, place your mixing bowl over the water and boil. Check to make certain the water level doesn't touch the bottom of your mixing bowl.

Hollandaise 911
In case your hollandaise separates, you can bring it back by adding a tablesoon of boiling water, whipping constantly. You can also beat another egg yolk in a bowl, add the broken sauce, and return this mixture to the double boiler.

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