Sunday, March 27, 2011

It was supposed to be so simple

I had it all planned out: I would write a short, sweet little post about spring coming to Toulouse, the bounty of beautiful produce it's brought with it, and the delicate, yet unfussy, dish I would prepare with pristine white asparagus, a true harbinger of spring if ever there was one. Here, have a look at it, I invite you. Pretty stunning, no?

There I was at the Marché Cristal, a lively, sprawling open-air market near my house, on a recent sunny morning, agape with wonder at all the new arrivals on display, and rendered nearly paralyzed with indecision at what to buy first: the slender green artichokes, leaves still attached, displayed like so many bouquets of flowers? The huge, curling pods of fava beans, or fèves, overflowing and nearly tumbling down from their slatted cases? How about a small container of perfect, sweet yet tart strawberries, real strawberries, the likes of which you hardly ever find in the United States these days?

Somehow, I pulled myself together and made my purchases, starting, yes, with those lovely fraises, which I devoured in about three minutes upon reaching home, and finishing up with the bunch of asparagus pictured above. It was nearly lunchtime by the time I got home, and I was hungry, those berries not really having tided me over. I quickly trimmed up the asparagus, snapping the tough ends off, and threw them in a steamer to cook for, I wagered, about 12 minutes, until they were just tender. In the meantime, thought I, I'll put a little pot of water on the boil for a soft-cooked egg, which I envisioned as the perfect accompaniment to my asparagus, slumping gently over them, lubricating them with its rich yellow yolk. Sounds like a plan, no?

Well, sometimes even the most carefully thought out plans don't turn out the way we intend. You see, I had never actually cooked white asparagus before, and rather brashly assumed that its method of preparation was identical to that of its verdant cousin. And so when I tested a blond spear after about 10 minutes--lifting it from the steamer to see if it would bend ever-so-slightly--I could see that something was wrong. The tips of the asparagus seemed nice and tender, but the bottom part of the stem was still rather the same texture as it was when raw: woody and unyielding. "Well, OK," I thought to myself, "I'll just let them steam a little longer." Checked them again after ten minutes. No real discernible change. Abandoned my steaming mission and chucked the little devils right into the boiling water at the bottom. Ten more minutes, and it became clear that there was no salvaging this situation. I drained the little buggers, laid them out nicely on a plate as intended, draped them with lemony vinaigrette, and garnished them with some sliced tomatoes. I should add, at this point, that my frustration with the asparagus caused me to totally forgot about my lovingly cooked soft egg, and what I now had was a hard-cooked one. I saved it for later. I made another soft egg. And what I got, finally, was this:

It doesn't look bad, does it? And see, it didn't taste bad, either. But the only edible part of the asparagus was the top half. The bottom half I had to sort of pull through my teeth, much as one eats a steamed artichoke leaf, to scrape out the interior softness and leave behind the tough, fibrous exterior. A lot of work for a lot of waste. It was a shame. And so as soon as I finished eating, I looked up the correct method of preparing white asparagus. Turns out that even the slenderest stems possess a hard outer peel that must be removed--with a knife--before cooking. It would have been nice to know that before, but I know it now. And so I've provided the emended recipe below. Here's hoping your maiden white asparagus voyage encounters smooth seas.

Steamed White Asparagus with a Soft-Cooked Egg
Serves 1


- 1 small bunch fresh white asparagus (10 - 12 spears)
- 1 egg
- Vinaigrette made with mustard, lemon juice, salt and olive oil
- Sliced fresh tomatoes, for serving (optional)


1. Trim and peel the asparagus: as mentioned above, this step is indispensable and it's important to do it correctly. First, trim the bottom 1 inch from the asparagus spears. Then, using a small, sharp paring knife, peel the outer layer off, stripping the stem from the bottom up. Continue peeling nearly to the top of the spear.
2. Steam the asparagus: in a large, wide pot or pan, heat about 2 inches of water over high heat. When it boils, salt it, drop in the asparagus, cover and drop to a lively simmer. Steam, covered, until spears are tender, about 15 to 20 minutes.
3. Meanwhile, soft-boil the egg: place egg in a small saucepan and fill with cold water to cover. Place over medium-high heat; cover. When water boils, drop to a simmer and cook egg for exactly 8 minutes. Drain and immediately run egg under cold water to stop the cooking. When egg is cool, peel.
4. Drain asparagus and arrange warm spears on a plate, drizzling with about 3 teaspoons vinaigrette. Season with salt and pepper. Slice egg into halves or quarters and arrange over the asparagus. Serve with sliced tomato, if desired.