Sunday, May 10, 2009

Asparagus: a meeting of two cultures at the table

Unless otherwise noted, all materials on this blog are (c) 2009 by Madeleine Vedel

It is asparagus season. Every market, every farm and nearly every table are at this moment laden in asparagus. White, green, fat and thin. Being that we've not many other choices of spring vegetables other than fresh peas, lettuce, sorrel, and? Asparagus is the handsome, delicious, seasonal choice.

When at the cooking school, this was the season for Asperges à la sauce Maltaise. Every class from early April through May cooks the following dish, a favorite of Erick's, and t.

The basic recipe is a home-made mayonnaise, stretched to make a sauce with fresh squeezed orange juice.

The proportions we worked with are:

one raw egg yolk
1/2 teaspoon smooth Dijon mustard
1 squirt of lemon juice
a pinch of salt
1/2 - 1 cup of buttery/fruity olive oil

once, the mayonnaise is made - 1/4 - 1/2 cup orange juice

With a smooth sided mortar, or a sturdy mixing bowl placed on a slightly dampened dish cloth, we would use a fork (yes, of course, whisks are fine, but... when you're visiting non-cooking friends, or out camping, do you always have a whisk on hand? why not work on acquiring a new skill?) to beat the drizzle of olive oil slowly and surely into the egg yolk/mustard, lemon juice mixture and salt. Gradually, we would build our mayonnaise. Contrary to thought, the more oil, the stiffer the mayonnaise.

Once the mayonnaise has a nice stiffness, add the fresh-squeezed orange juice. There again, play with the texture and flavor and add from 1/4 - 2/3 cup of juice as you prefer. We like it to be thicker than heavy cream, to nap the back of a spoon, rather akin to the texture of a crême anglaise. You can spice up the sauce with another squirt of lemon juice, or keep it pretty mellow with just the orange juice.

The name of the sauce comes from the variety of oranges that we can find on the market at the moment, the Maltese.

The asparagus to go with this sauce is prepared very simply -- either steamed till tender, or boiled in bunches till tender. I try not to go over 6 minutes, and blanch them quickly in ice water to stop the cooking and hopefully keep the lovely green color. In general, if you are served asparagus in Southern France, it will be very cooked. The locals eat it tender. They do not appreciate it crunchy.

However, that said, in my own home I'm bucking the trend a bit. I'm chopping up my lovely stalks -- after peeling the bottoms, and snapping off the woody bottoms-- and stir frying them with olive oil, minced garlic and squirts of lemon juice.

I toss them into a hot frying pan with oil, and give them a minute or two all over. Then I add a half cup of water and cover for a couple minutes so they cook and soften. Then I remove the lid and let the water steam off. I toss in the minced garlic, keep turning the asparagus, then a few squirts of lemon juice, some fleur de sel, and serve. My family rather likes this preparation as does the Japanese intern at the wintery. JP's mother, however, was quite dismayed to eat uncooked asparagus, and made this very vocally clear.

Ah well, you can't please everyone all the time.

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