Sunday, May 1, 2011

Spargel Spargel Spargel!

Bender: “Master Spargel, if you can hear me up there in that ditch where I left you, this is for you!”
-Bender from Season 3, Episode 22 of Futurama, referring to his cooking master, Helmut Spargel

After a month’s holiday from blogging I am back in blogosphere. Sorry about the interruption, but we all need a vacation now and then!
            Now that I got that over with, it’s time to head back into the kitchen.  Finally spring is here (unless you live in the upper Midwest, where you might still be looking for those forlorn Easter eggs in the middle of the snow bank). This means no more to the monotony and tyranny of shriveled winter vegetables. If you forage, you can start looking for morels and a whole bunch of spring leaves (if you have allergies, as I do, I highly recommend your shots and Claritin, otherwise the only foraging you will do is for tissues and Visine).  And if you are in Northern Europe, it’s spargel time. There are Spargelfests, Spargel menus and Spargelfrauen.
            And what is this mysterious thing? It’s asparagus. But in contradistinction to the familiar green shoots, spargel is a creamy white. How did it get that way? I thought you would never ask.
But first a biology lesson. Asparagus or by it’s Latin name, Asparagus officinalis, is a perennial related to alliums (the same family that lilies and onions belong to). Native to Europe, North Africa and Western Asia (Asia Minor), asparagus has been cultivated and eaten thousands of years.[1] Preferring saline, sandy soil, it grows well and is often found wild near ocean shores. Furthermore, its ability to grow in saline soil may be an evolutionary form of pest and weed control. It will flower and bear fruit, however, the fruit is poisonous to humans. In actuality, asparagus is planted via root propagation-that is by its roots not through seed (rhizomes-think ginger). And those funny looking things on the stem that look like leaves? Those are actually modified stems or bracts.
Spargel is just like ordinary green asparagus-just deprived of sun (just like Northern Europeans). As soon as the shoots start appearing out of the ground, they are immediately covered with dirt-a process called “hilling.” The shoot will still grow, but due to the absence of sun, no chlorophyll (the chemical in plants that makes them green) will develop. Because of this lack of chlorophyll development, spargel has significantly less sulfides, tasting far milder than its green counterpart.
Hilling is hard freaking work. Each shoot has to be covered individually, by hand. The plants have to be monitored religiously to avoid the tiniest bit of green. If their heads pop out of the mound, they turn green. They have to be harvested in soil, or they turn green. If they see a Frenchman, they turn green. Each plant then has to be harvested by hand, thus their preciousness and price ($, £, € or whatever other currency). But Germans don’t seem to mind the expense. Out of the 82,000 tons of “white gold” that Germany produces, only 61% of the population gets its fill. The other 39% must suffer with clearly inferior Spanish, Italian or Greece spargel.
While there are many ways to serve spargel (traditionally with hollandaise sauce and boiled potatoes), there is really only one way to cook it.  In world’s oldest surviving cooking, Apicus’ 3rd century CE De Re Coquinaria suggests that the cook:
“…In order to have it most agreeable to the palate must be peeled, washed and dried and immersed in boiling water backwards.”[2]
Clearly, Apicus knew what he was doing. Asparagus, especially spargel, due to its particular cultivation, often has dirt and sand trapped at the bottom, thus must be washed and dried immediately to avoid any rot or mustiness. And spargel, unlike its green brothers, can be very thick without affecting tenderness (also due to lack of chlorophyll-it also prevents the growth of woody xylem in the stems).  But it does need to be peeled. And it should cooked as Apicus suggested-“backwards”- that is with thicker stems sitting in boiling water, as to avoid over-cooking the delicate heads.
            In spite of Apicus’ wisdom in culinary techniques, he didn’t seem to have a solution to what my brother so delicately calls, “the pee” issue. Asparagus, green or white, is filled with asparagusic acid, a sulfur compound. When eaten, the body transforms the asparagusic acid into chemicals that are close relatives to skunk spray (methanethiol) relatively quickly, about 15-30 minutes after ingestion. I don’t have to tell you what happens next.
             Unfortunately, aspargusic acid is also to blame for the asparagus wine problem. If you don’t know what I mean, try to eat asparagus with a Barolo – and you will swear you just wasted 100 bucks.  You can drink wine with asparagus, but choose wines that will not clash with the chemistry of asparagus.  In wine terms, avoid heavily tannic or oaked wines (this means most reds and Chardonnays). Crisp, citrus whites, such as Riesling or Pinot Grigio are the way to go: they complement asparagus’ sulfurous notes quite nicely.
            Before it’s too late, go out and spargel, if you can. If you can’t dance like Dieter on Sprockets, at least you can eat like him. Guten Appetit!

Spargel with Crispy Ham and Eggs

            If you are lucky enough to get your hands on some white asparagus, by all means use it. Check to see if the stems are still moist and firm when pinched at the bottom (sign of freshness).  If the stems seem spongy or limp, don’t bother and try to find the youngest stems of green asparagus you can get. (NB: Unlike spargel, which does not get bitter or woody with size, green asparagus does.)
Enough for 2 main or 4 side dish servings
1 pd. of white asparagus, ends trimmed and peeled (see above)
3 freshly hard-boiled eggs (organic or free-range)
1/4 pd. of thinly sliced air-cured ham, e.g. Serrano, Prosciutto, etc.
juice and zest of 1 lemon
1/4 c. extra virgin olive oil, plus more for coating skillet
salt and pepper to taste
chopped flat leaf parsley for garnish

1.     Generously coat a large non-stick skillet with olive oil, and heat over medium heat and place individual slices of ham onto pan. Fry ham until the edges curl, about a minute. Flip over ham and cook for 30-60 seconds more, until the ham turns a shade darker. Cool on paper towels. (You may need to do this in batches.)
2.     If you have an asparagus steamer, boil enough water to steam, add asparagus to the basket, steam for 11/2 minutes and drain. If not, take a pot that is large enough to hold all the asparagus lengthwise. Add enough water to cover the asparagus and bring to a rolling boil. Add asparagus and blanch for 1 minute and then drain.
3.     Crumble ham into little chips with your hands. Finely chop eggs. Set both aside.
4.     Take lemon juice and zest and whisk with 1/4 c. of olive oil to make a dressing. Add salt and pepper to taste. Dress asparagus with the dressing.
To assemble: Place dressed asparagus in a single layer on a large serving plate. Scatter chopped egg on top of the asparagus.  Scatter ham over the top of the eggs. Add parsley for garnish.

[2] This is taken from an online translation of Apicus’ work via Lacus Curtius (Center Stage in Latin) project at the blessed folk from the University of Chicago (Apicus’ work is in the public domain, as is all classical works). See:*.html

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