For G.A., by Gustav Ericson
A late April afternoon, and the big, steamed-up windows at XO Café look out on the snarled traffic and torrential, driving rain on Madison Avenue. A stark, steely gray, urban vista, gutters barely accommodating the surge- the sort of day that washes away any vestiges of winter from the alleys. Inside the cocoon of The XO there are only two other customers, strangers, eating stir-fries silently at a Formica table in a far corner. There is a very occasional clatter coming from the kitchen, otherwise a hush prevails. The food here is exceptional. When the stir-fries pass our table, the redolence of prawns, ginger and garlic engulfs us. At such “cafés” there is often no cut off between lunch and dinner, and XO Proprietress Amy will laughingly get us another scallion pancake at 3:30, if we need one, and a fresh Thai bubble tea with the fat tapioca pearls at 11:00 p.m. Amy has gotten to know my foodie cohorts and me, and appreciates that we adore her evolved vegetarian stir-fries, perfect scallion pancakes, and her mother’s gossamer- skinned dumplings. This is serious Chinese, with a most welcome lack of cornstarch, overused oil, canned baby corn. Amy, as she warms to us gastronomo nut cases, has the graciousness and enthusiasm to show us the sometimes-esoteric vegetables that she has sourced that day. We are always entranced. This particular rain drenched afternoon she has big, fat emerald and lavender asparagus, and huge, dusky, umber shiitakes. We are so moved that she has warmed to us to the point of showing us her provender. And that she has introduced us to the “Grandmother”, who seems to cook every day, and well into the night. We often pop into the kitchen after dinner to thank the “Grandmother”. Though we share maybe ten words in English, we somehow always end up laughing. The day of the asparagus and shiitakes Grandmother is listening to Billie Holiday and Lester Young tunes. I thought briefly about the transcendence of music and food and struggle and laughter. I noticed that she had two steel bowls of asparagus, one of segments cut on the bias, one just the tender tips, so that they might be added late in the cooking process. The details so crucial. We watched the Grandmother with her dumpling skins, her knowing delicacy of movement, her amused nonchalance. She listened to Lester Young that rain- washed April afternoon. The asparagus stir fry fairly scintillated on the austere white serving dishes- the unique jade and violet of the asparagus, a “tender manifestation” of Spring, and the bosky, forestial, faintly chemical profundity of the shiitakes. There was a fleeting nuance of garlic and some sort of capsicum, but blessedly no toasted sesame oil. We do love the people that provide us with a nurturing cocoon from which to watch the storms on the avenue.
Another rainy April we had asparagus every night for three weeks, and never ever once grew cynical. There’s something about this vegetable that, like pears, speaks to many levels of aesthetic and gustatory experience. I savor the recollection of going into the asparagus bed with The Matriarch and helping to brush aside winter’s leafy debris so that the purple green asparagus tips might get a head start- though we both knew they would have resolutely gotten through anyhow. I am sure, half a century later, that there was utter silence, perhaps a ladybug and the patient and bemused nature of The Matriarch. That determined asparagus miraculously slept and survived another winter, as mysterious as the solitary trillium nodding on its fragile stem up in the woods. At that time there was a an abundance of asparagus, always unpeeled, steamed and served on its own antique, moss green platter. Embellished only with melted butter, sometimes a little lemon. There would be lamb cooked à la cuillère- so tender you could cut it with a spoon, and mashed potatoes, and probably a rhubarb dessert. Asparagus like that, straight from the garden, needs no peeling and minimal cooking, and is edible from purplish tip to pale green toe.
Not much later, I would learn to make all sorts of sophisticated French dishes with asparagus, and ate it cold and alone for supper with a shallot vinaigrette, or in an elegant, golden, gruyère omelette, the asparagus left whole so the tips would poke out seductively from the end. Always my favorite omelette, and the deciding dish that brought Beloved Dining Companion over to my way of thinking… hitherto, she had always detested asparagus. (She will now eat it wrapped up in prosciutto, happy as a clam). Asparagus and a four minute egg, the spear to dip into the molten yolk, a breakfast where black pepper taste most like black pepper. In serious cuisine days, I made multitudes of asparagus quiche, asparagus timbales, and riffs on Amy’s asparagus-mushroom theme, with chanterelles and morels in delicate cream sauces hinting of tarragon- La Primavera, plated. Too, asparagus polonaise, with striations of separated hard cooked egg and browned bread crumbs, sputtering browned butter, and every variation of hollandaise. Sauce Maltase is best with asparagus, decrees Escoffier, and further notes that this classy variation of hollandaise is best when made with blood orange juice and peel. So urbane, ribboned generously on the bias across an emerald green platter of asparagus. (Make some up this spring, and then you can intone, seductively, “I do hope you are enjoying your asperges Maltaise, chèri”. It’s good to say those things. Once). Still later I learned to use a wok correctly, relying on the diminishing heat up the sides (away from the intense heat of the vortex). We ate glistening asparagus stir-fries with haunting ginger undertones and minimal protein over brown rice.
I only ever
peeled asparagus in deference to
the ruling chef de cuisine. It is not
my wont to quibble with culinary royalty, but I do question Julia’s
that “the best asparagus is peeled
asparagus…” I find the texture of the peeled to be a little too
silky, preferring the contrast of
snappy integument and tender interior.
To each his own, though I wonder about the nutritional
value of peeled
and boiled vegetables. ( Nota bene that asparagus is exceptionally high in folic acid and diuretic properties
and low in calories and sodium). Asparagus
officinalis was adored by the Greeks but first cultivated by the
who were crazy for it to the point of initiating “asparagus fleets”
procuring it from around the
Nowadays, I roast asparagus and exhort you to try it that way at least once. The intense, dry heat of a 425-degree oven seals in the complex verdant flavors of the spears, caramelizing the sugars within them. You can retrieve them from the oven after 12 minutes or so, as soon as they are limp, or give them a longer spell in the oven to further burnish and concentrate those sugars. As noted before, I like to add three or four sliced shallots to the asparagus, tossing both with good, fruity olive oil, and sprinkling with several grindings of both sea salt and black pepper. Take time to admire the lavender phylloclades, the triangular “branches” along the stem. If you let the asparagus go to seed, they will become long, spindly branches and bear brilliant vermilion berries. I would use the roasting method in any of the applications above, except perhaps the Maltaise, deferring to the classicism of it. Also, note that the roasting approach works best with fatter spears, which we find more flavorful anyhow.
Young sheep milk cheese and asparagus seem made for one another, so we have been playing with that combination with great success. Our favorite Tuscan restaurateur and author, Pino Luongo, suggests a glorious tribute to spring with his salad of baby artichokes, fava beans, new peas, asparagus and shaved pecorinoToscano. We can’t imagine a more elegant way to usher in spring. Our faithful patron Don Brown makes a similar salad but uses haricots verts, ricotta salata, delicate leaf lettuce, and toasted pistachios, taking the whole verdant affair over the top with black truffle salt! (We carry an excellent Italian variety). Lately I like to arrange roasted asparagus on a slab of grilled “No-Knead” bread that I’ve been touting (ask me for the recipe) and melt some cacciota al tartufo (sheep milk cheese with black truffle) overall, ‘til it bubbles. My esteemed compadre and culinary expert Dondi Ahearn came up with much the same approach, using sottocenere al tartufo. There’s a long-standing tacit understanding between this cat Dondi and me, so that we come up with the same use of tomato jam, vialone nano rice, and watch the same obscure Spanish movie, simultaneously, and reveal the experience a week or so later. I recently threw together a sort of quiche/sformata affair using ricotta, mascarpone, a dusting of breadcrumbs for the crust, and a scattering of Parmesan overall. It emerged from the oven a fragrant mosaic of green and gold. I heightened the subtle, rich sformata, once plated, by strewing it with fried capers, providing a little mystery, and still more green. That “No- Knead” bread, grilled, and roasted asparagus make for outstanding bruschetti, too. I toss a few roasted spears with a handful of arugula, squeeze on a little lemon, and then either jazz it up with some Parmesan shavings (as always, use your potato peeler), or some paper thin slices of prosciutto. Strew these concoctions on your grilled bread (rubbed with a clove of garlic if you like). Et voilà, lunch! Melissa Clark’s recent article in the “New York Times” suggested an anytime- of-day breakfast comprised of soft, custardy polenta, an egg fried in olive oil, and a side of bitter greens wilted with garlic. I lavished the polenta (always use stone ground) with Grana Padano and substituted a sheath of roasted asparagus for the greens. We agree with Ms. Clark that this is a grand repast for dawn, midnight, and most anytime in between.
In these observations, you may note that we tend to advocate an embrace of the sophisticated followed by a return to the guileless (maybe you can go home again- maybe you should…) Our romance with asparagus has of course followed that route. Our favorite approach is to roast the fat spears in olive oil with a touch of salt in an iron frying pan ‘til limp. When they’re on the platter, drizzle with a little more oil and serve with a wedge of lemon. A “knob” of butter (old culinary lingo that we love) would also be appropriate. With produce as good as we have here, who needs the frippery?
A good asparagus bed, like one of peonies or rhubarb, can apparently last forever. So can the memories of a perfect late lunch in a now shuttered Chinese restaurant. Or uncovering an asparagus bed on a gauzy spring morning. We wish you a spring filled with such memories. And, stop by the cheese department for recipes- for roasting asparagus, constructing a sformata, and frying capers.