By Joe Dizney
Although in the modern world it’s available year-round, we celebrate asparagus as a harbinger of spring. And like the cherry blossoms, its time is fleeting.
The Germans say asparagus picked in the morning should be devoured by lunch, and the Romans had a maxim, “Quicker than you can cook asparagus.” In the 17th century, Louis XIV of France anointed it the “king of vegetables.”
The French are also credited with identifying a readily available substitute: leeks, or “poor man’s asparagus.” But you have to boil leeks about 10 minutes to match the sweetness of asparagus blanched for barely one.
A combination of the two seems natural and offers the symbolic advantage of celebrating the beginning of spring and the passing of winter, when leeks provide comfort. Both also share classic flavor affinities and pairings — assertive, acidic dressings, olive oil and eggs.
The dressing in this recipe is a simple but emphatic emulsion of lemon juice, mashed, oil-packed anchovies and olive oil. No seasonings are necessary beyond the anchovies, although a quick grind of pepper and a pinch of minced tarragon or parsley offer another vernal accent.
Rather than traditional hard-cooked chopped egg, an easy soft-cooked and hand-torn yard egg provides a creaminess that is another gastronomic celebration. Truth be told, both the dressing and the soft-cooked egg are easily adapted to a variety of other raw, steamed, roasted or grilled vegetables.
Serve this dish alone or as a side to roast fish — or better still, a spring chicken — atop a bed of greens as a main course salad. It’s a timesaver, too, as it can be prepared up to a day ahead. Just be quick about it.
Rich Man, Poor Man
Asparagus and Leeks with Anchovy-Lemon Dressing and Soft-Cooked Egg
Serves 4 to 6
1 bunch asparagus
4 to 5 leeks (½ to 1 inch diameter)
3 tablespoons fresh-squeezed lemon juice
6 oil-packed anchovy filets
1 tablespoon chopped tarragon or parsley
1 to 2 room temperature eggs
For the dressing: Mash the anchovies and lemon juice together in a small bowl. Whisk in 3 to 4 tablespoons of olive oil. Add chopped tarragon or parsley and a couple of grinds of white or black pepper. Stir to incorporate and set aside.
For the vegetables: Snap the tough ends from the asparagus. Set aside. Trim the root end of the leeks, leaving enough to hold them together while cooking. Cut off the tough tops, leaving about 2 to 3 inches of the lighter green part attached. (There is a lot of flavor in the tops. Boiling will tenderize the part you leave on, but save the rest to flavor soups or stews or stock.) Insert a knife about 1 inch below the tops and cut through leaving most of the white part whole. Fan the trimmed leeks; rinse thoroughly under cold, running water. If the leeks are especially dirty, you may make another cut to further open them. Set aside.
Bring a large pot of water to a steady, medium boil and salt well. Prepare an ice bath for the vegetables in a large bowl. Boil leeks for 8 to 10 minutes until tender and transfer to ice bath to cool. With the pot still boiling, add asparagus and cook for just a minute. Transfer asparagus to the ice bath (refreshing ice if necessary) and when vegetables are cool, drain first to a strainer and then on paper towels to remove excess moisture.
Transfer the vegetables to a rimmed serving dish, add dressing and toss lightly to coat. Cover dish with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least two hours or overnight.
For the soft-cooked egg: Bring a pan of water (enough to generously cover the eggs) to boil. Adjust heat so the water is steadily but not wildly boiling and gently lower eggs into pan. (Use room-temperature eggs — no cheating!) Boil for exactly six minutes. Prepare an ice water bath to cover eggs and when they are done immerse them immediately into the bath and cool. Peel and set aside.
To serve, toss the vegetables to redistribute the dressing and tear or crumble the soft cooked eggs over all.