After Federal Express arrived at our door the other day, we were left with, among other things, a ten pound case of jumbo white asparagus. They were beautiful and the next morning found me in the kitchen with my peeler and paring knife grooming them into submission. They were so fresh that as I peeled them the juices flowed and the temptation to sink my teeth into them raw was almost irresistable. Ten pounds is a large pile of asparagus and there was plenty of time to mull over the possibilities.
As my mind ranged through the traditional approaches, asparagus salad with poached eggs immediately came to mind. Of course, truffles never hurt that dish and with that in mind I took the first twenty five or so spears that I finished and put they in a vacuum sealed bag with a bit of sea salt, Strauss organic butter and white truffle oil. I sealed up the bag and placed it in a covered water bath in a 200-degree oven for three hours to soften and infuse. They were lovely, juicy and tender with lovely background notes of truffles and butter. I had used just enough fat to infuse flavor and absorb into the the stalks. Later on I was very happy to discover that they would be usable hot or cold as there were almost no fat globules clinging to the spears once they were chilled.
I continued to peel and thought about the change in weather. May is a beautiful month in Pagosa with warm afternoons and cool evenings. It is often a nicer month than June as there is usually a dip in temperatures and a brief turn in the weather that month. May tends to be warm and sunny, lulling people into premature plantings as they forget the capriciousness of June. There's a reason why our growing season starts in July. The smoker was blowing full tilt outside the back door and my mind turned to barbeque. I've never actually seen grilled white asparagus, at least not that I can remember. Chefs tend to treat these Spring Beauties with reverence and respect and they are most often seen braised or steamed. I would imagine that the hesitation is caused by the inherent bitterness found in asparagus. Frankly, I was a little bit concerned about it myself. The hearty flavors of green asparagus can easliy balance out the added bitterness caused by charring but the whites are a much more subtle character. Of course, the beauty of being a Chef is that you can experiment however you like and so I rubbed another twenty or thirty unpeeled stalks with a whisper of olive oil and threw them on the grill. The theory being that I would peel them after they were grilled removing the most abrasive of the charring effects, leaving behind a softer version of the caramelization and smokiness. I also took the opportunity to take all of the peelings that I generated and put them in a stock pot with cold water and set them over a slow flame on the range. I then continued to peel, keeping an eye on the grill and the range as I did so.
The pile of asparagus was shrinking rapidly and I realized that I was going to have to leave some asparagus for Alex to play with. But, since I was peeling I decided that I deserved the lion's share of the bounty. I pulled out our new stainless steel steamer and filled the bottom with asparagus peelings and water. We do have several bamboo steamers but with the asparagus' delicate flavors, I didn't want the assertiveness of the bamboo to muddy the proceedings. At this point the stock was just below the boiling point so I turned it off and covered it. I prefer to steep the brew like tea, although for a significantly longer time period, about an hour, after which time I would strain it and chill it for use later, when we worked the menu out. When the liquid in the steamer hit a boil I threw in a couple of handfulls of fresh tarragon, a rack and then a layer of asparagus stalks. I then turned the flame as low as it would go, covered the steamer and left it alone for about 45 minutes. If the cooking times seem long, please remember that white asparagus is quite woody. Although they do soften to a tender silken bite, there are still defiant threads running through them and the goal is to make them as toothsome and as pliable as possible. Once the asparagus were done steaming, I strained out the liquid and added it to our finished asparagus stock.
The rest of the spears went to Alex who slow cooked them in his new toy, an immersion circulator. We used his asparagus in two dishes, the first was the scallop dish with rhubarb, smoked peanut sauce and brittle, and fried lovage. The second was the ginger braised veal cheek with sliced prime sirloin, and a ragout of sweet and sour ramps, morels and the asparagus. The truffle infused asparagus were gently warmed for service and paired with the very floral and aromatic lime pickle hollandaise made with brown butter, and our own summer truffle marmalade. As a side note, we did have one diner arrive who did not eat asparagus of any kind. We were able to omit it from all but the first dish and in that case he was served grilled lamb's tongue with a butter steamed egg accompanied by the summer truffle marmalade and lime pickle hollandaise. It was so well received that we had to send out some extra tongue for the other gentleman at the table as well.
I scraped the skins off of the grilled asparagus with a paring knife, seasoned them lightly and tasted one. The results were slightly more bitter than the other methods, but not offensive at all. The caramelized flavors were actually pretty delicious. I have to admit though, that I am partial to a slight bitterness in my cooking as part of an overall balance of flavors. Paired with the richness of the MouCo cheese which had a slightly chalky center and a creamy outer edge, the acidic crunchiness of the green almonds, and the smoky sweetness of the Dr. Pepper syrup, they were a beautiful match. The steamed aparagus were infused with the anise-y flavor of the tarragon, sliced and tossed with a simple syrup made from the asparagus stock and fresh strawberries, then served on top of a gianduja tart with an almond crust. My first inclination was to make a pannacotta with the asparagus stock but we had a regular diner coming in who loves gianduja so we went in that direction instead.
That's it. That's the result of ten pounds of white asparagus. I can't wait to see what comes in next week.