Small, Good Things: Spears of Heaven

By Joe Dizney

There is a particular hue of green that signals the full-blown arrival of spring. The trees are not fully leafed out, and the resulting layered effect in the landscape — with the yellow of forsythia, the whites and yellows of daffodils and the lengthening daylight — combine to produce a very specific shade that lifts the spirits in a way that the deep, shaded verdancy of the summer never can.

This is the color of asparagus.

Asparagus in situ editFor the first 20 years or so of my life, asparagus was to me a drab green vegetable that came in a can, tasted of brine and had the flaccid consistency of baby food. It appeared as a special feature of holiday salads and signaled middle-class luxury. It wasn’t until I was in my 20s, which coincided with a little worldliness and the French and American food revolution of the ’70s, that I — we — saw the light.

No matter how good this or any other recipe may be, the less done to these little spears of heaven, the better. It’s a universal truth that applies to most any seasonal produce: corn, tomatoes, beans, what have you, are best treated lightly. (Sometimes the finest dictum is just “Eat it raw.”)

But unlike beans, tomatoes and corn, staples of many home gardens, asparagus requires very focused cultivation. Historically considered a member of the lily family (like garlic and onions), asparagus ultimately received its own botanic familial designation — Asparagaceae — due to its particular growing and fruiting habit.

The asparagus bed is a commitment in space but more so to time, as from seed it will be years before the home gardener will reap the rewards of his or her labor. This is one reason asparagus isn’t so familiar to the weekend gardener. The process can be expedited by purchasing and planting established “crowns” (3-year-old stock is commonly available), which will usually begin producing the second year. Maximum yields don’t occur until years 5 through 9, but a bed, if properly prepared and situated, will produce for 15-20 years.

Another disadvantage to the weekend gardener is the fact that the asparagus harvest is a constant race against time: spears of about 6 inches must be cut at the ground level with an asparagus fork (very sharp) on a daily basis (as they seemingly appear overnight), and the harvest only goes on for about four weeks. (Fortunately, freezing after a quick 30-second blanching is a great way to preserve the flavor and texture.)

Note: Contrary to claims by Euell Gibbons, downhome environmentalist and author of Stalking the Wild Asparagus, many “old-timers” suggest that wild asparagus spears are really formerly domesticated stands gone rogue (although I have found large “wild” spears hiking up Mount Beacon and find it hard to believe there was once so sophisticated a farmstead up that way).

Asparagus Bread Pudding 1But back to the reason why we’re here: eating. Again, there’s not much to complain about when confronted with a plate full of lightly boiled or steamed-and-buttered points d’amour (“love tips,” as the delicacies were known to Madame de Pompadour). My absolute favorite is a quick toss in olive oil, a dusting of salt and pepper and high-heat roast (at 425 degrees) for 10 minutes finished with a squeeze of lemon.

I have been known to consume a pound hot from the oven in one sitting. The more complicated favorites on my list would be Alice Waters’ spring risotto of asparagus and peas, finished with a fava bean puree; or Alain Ducasse’s Asparagus Three Ways, a pure celebration of the vegetable as a flan garnished with raw shavings and an asparagus vinaigrette.

This savory bread pudding recipe is adapted from Georgeanne Brennan’s Potager (1992, Chronicle Books). I’ve left it relatively “plain” (if such a luxurious concoction of cheese and eggs could ever be called plain) and as such it makes for a great accompaniment to roast or grilled lamb or a simple roast chicken, or served with a salad as the centerpiece of a simple brunch.

Thoughts on gilding-the-lily would be the inclusion of bacon (what doesn’t benefit from a little pork, or as a friend calls it, “The King of Meats, because it treats the mouth like royalty”) or the seasonally compatible ramps or morels (which I am informed by the Connecticut-Westchester Mycological Association have been spotted in the area). This is also a great recipe to save for the winter holidays to bring back a taste of spring and use up those spears that you did manage to squirrel away.

Asparagus bread pudding
Adapted from Potager by Georgeanne Brennan; serves 6-8

12 to 16 thick slices dry bread (remember, the lighter the bread, the lighter the pudding, so be careful of whole grain loaves)
2½ to 3 cups milk
1 pound asparagus, cut diagonally to 1½- to 2-inch length (reserve tips for final garnish)
5 eggs
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
¼ teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
¼ cup freshly grated Romano cheese
4 ounces Fontina cheese, slivered
4 ounces Swiss or Gruyere cheese, slivered
½ cup chopped mixed fresh green herbs (chives or marjoram; definitely tarragon)
1 tablespoon butter, cut into small bits

1) Preheat an oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 3- to 4-quart casserole. Place bread in a single layer in a large shallow dish. Pour 2½ cups milk over the top. Let soak until bread has absorbed the milk and becomes soft, about 30 minutes. Squeeze bread to extract the milk and set aside, reserving the liquid. Measure the reserved milk — you should have around ½ cup milk; if not, make up the difference with additional milk as needed.

2) While the bread is soaking, trim asparagus, removing the woody ends. Cut the stalks on the diagonal as specified above. Plunge into boiling water until tender when pierced with a fork. Immediately drain and place asparagus under cold running water until cooled thoroughly. Drain and set aside.

3) In a bowl beat together eggs, salt, pepper, nutmeg and the reserved ½ cup milk until well blended. Layer one-third of the bread in the prepared casserole. Top the bread layer with half of the asparagus and half of the herbs. Spread one-third of each of the cheeses over the asparagus. Repeat the layers, using half of the remaining bread, all of the remaining asparagus and herbs, and half of the remaining cheese.

4) Arrange the remaining bread on top, spread the remaining cheese over it, and garnish with the reserved asparagus tips. Pour the milk-egg mixture evenly over the top and then dot with the butter.

5) Bake in preheated oven until the top is crusty brown and a knife inserted in the middle of the pudding comes out clean, about 45 minutes. Serve warm.

Celia Barbour is off this week.


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