Asparagus

Asparagus

I have a confession: for the last couple of weeks, I've been having asparagus for dinner almost every other night.

I am a firm believer in the sense of this kind of seasonal "binging". Sure, we can get asparagus year-round now, but they are really at their best right now, not to mention at their cheapest. Admittedly most of the asparagus we're getting here right now is still imported, but it's still half the price of what it is in other months, and so I'm indulging.

Before I came to live here in Switzerland, the only way I knew to cook asparagus was to the so-called crisp-tender stage. My favorite way of eating asparagus was simply to stir fry it. But then, I encountered the more Middle European way of cooking asparagus, which is to cook it until it's quite soft. I'd also never seen white asparagus before coming here (well, they had it I guess at NYC gourmet mega-markets like Balducci's, but they never registered in my culinaric vision). White asparagus is indeed more delicate than green, and is really suited to the soft-cooking method, or best of all as the base for cream of asparagus soup.

Currently I have two favorite ways of cooking and eating asparagus. The first, an asparagus and egg sandwich, can be made with white or green asparagus. This sandwich is one of those offered by Sprüngli, a patisserie / chocolatier chain that's probably the best of the best in Switzerland. The second, grilled or baked asparagus with balsamic vinegar, is nouveau-Mediterranean / trendy, and needs green asparagus. It's adapted from the book that's in the sidebar, The Best (it's a recipe from Sylvana Franco). This makes great crisp-tender stalks with slightly crispy tops that go with just about anything you might serve for dinner, but especially with roast chicken. Both recipes are amazingly easy, but as with all simple recipes they rely on having the best ingredients you can get.

Asparagus and egg sandwich

To make two sandwiches

  • 10 perfect white or green asparagus spears
  • 3 large, fresh eggs, preferably organic
  • The best quality mayonnaise you can find. Homemade is best, but that makes this rather more complicated.
  • Softened butter
  • 2 whole-grain or sourdough rolls (but not overly sour, and not the sweet wholegrain type. If you can't find a non-sweet whole-grain roll, a piece of a baguette will do.

Ruthlessly cut off the ends of the asparagus so that you are left with stalks about the length of your roll. Cook the asparagus in very gently simmering salted water until quite tender - the spears should be rather floppy. Drain and let cool. (Optionally you can lightly sprinkle them with white wine vinegar.)

In the meantime, boil the eggs to the just-hardboiled stage. To do this, put the eggs into cold water, bring to a gentle boil, turn the heat off then put the lid on and leave for 10 minutes. Drain, and cool off the eggs in cold water. Peel carefully.

Cut the rolls in half lengthwise. Spread very thinly with the butter. Spread on both sides rather generously with mayonnaise. Slice the eggs, and lay out on one side of the rolls. At this point you can optionally add a bit more mayonnaise. Carefully arrange the asparagus on top. The spear ends can peek out a bit from the edge of the roll. Cap with the other half of the roll.

Eat immediately.

Grilled/baked asparagus with balsamic vinegar

  • A standard supermarket bunch of green asparagus
  • Coarse sea salt
  • Raw or brown sugar
  • Balsamic vinegar
  • Melted butter or olive oil

Preheat the oven to 200° C / 425° F or so (hot but not the hottest), or turn on the grill.

Prepare the asparagus by cutting off the tough ends, and lightly peeling the ends with a vegetable peeler. You want the stalk ends to look like halfway sharpened pencils. Line them up in a baking pan, preferably lined with a teflon baking sheet. (The sugar and vinegar tend to make the pan a bit sticky afterwards.)

Sprinkle the asparagus lightly with the salt, and sugar. How much sugar? Just a couple of pinches; you don't want them to be sugar-coated, just to have a hint of the sweetness.(The original recipe calls for white sugar but I find that raw, or coarse brown / unprocessed sugar, is even better with the balsamic vinegar.)

Sprinkle very sparingly with the balsamic vinegar. You don't want to douse the asparagus with it. To do this, place your thumb over the bottle mouth to control the sprinke rate.

Put a little melted butter or extra virgin olive oil over the asparagus - again, you only want a little. Butter makes it taste a bit sweeter, while olive oil makes it a bit more savory. Both work well. (The original recipe uses butter.)

Bake for 10 minutes or grill for about 8 minutes, turning a couple of times. If you bake the asparagus will be a bit softer, and grilling makes them more crunch and slightly charred. (The original recipe calls for baking them.)

Put on plates and spoon over any leftover liquid in the pan over them. Serve immediately. These are fun to eat with your fingers.

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