Small, Good Things: The Royale Treatment

My brother Stephen, may he rest in peace, had a strict but arbitrary (and I suspect of his own devising) dietary code: He would never eat anything that began with the letter “a.”

That meant a life without artichokes, avocados, apples, almonds, arugula — nearly unthinkable. But an existence without asparagus — especially at this time of year — is beyond comprehension.

Give ’em to me steamed, boiled, roasted or grilled, with butter, lemon or vinaigrette. To complicate things, there’s asparagus bread pudding, or asparagus with soba noodles and white miso (with maybe a soft-cooked egg on top?). What about with pasta in a lemon-parmesan cream sauce? So many tasty things to obsess about and/or miss out on!

One particularly rococo variation from the kitchen of French chef Alain Ducasse sticks in my memory like Proust’s madeleines: Asparagus Three Ways.

Asparagus custard (Photo by J. Dizney)

It consists of an unmolded asparagus mousse (or as Ducasse preferred, a royale) sitting in a puddle of poached and puréed asparagus (bolstered by a fine brunoise of raw peeled asparagus stems) and garnished with chilled curls shaved from the raw asparagus stalks and delicate, barely blanched tips.

Yes, I actually prepared this, years ago, in youthful exuberance. As memory serves, it was a success. However, while attempting to recreate that foggy remembrance in my kitchen last week, I was forced to confront another questionable youthful enthusiasm.

The unmolding was particularly messy and unattractive; the sauce mildly interesting but inessential, and shaved, chilled curls of raw asparagus seemed like culinary overkill. At this point in life, the labor and mess involved were less than worth the effort.

In an attempt to condense that experience down to its gastro-fundamentals, the mature me suggests instead the following humble asparagus custard. Call it a flan, if you like, but the salient points of culinary pleasure are much the same, with much less bother, with all (if not more) of the enjoyment.

Asparagus custard (Photo by J. Dizney)

The custard itself can be either cream-based or dairy-free by the simple substitution of soy milk (unsweetened if you can find it). Served unmolded, you save 20 minutes of unnecessary aggravation and cleanup. The asparagus tips for garnish are admittedly gratuitous but add a bit of crunch.

Ducasse’s recipe calls for a final drizzle of balsamic vinaigrette, tarted up with black olive paste (or grandiosely, crushed black truffles!). I modified that to a more manageable, assertive — and affordable — chunky black olive and sherry vinegar dressing that adds a measurably brighter, bolder and welcomed taste and texture.

This recipe also has the bonus of prolonging the typical asparagus-growing season in that it’s fine to use larger spears once the more delicate early crop is gone because the preparation requires longer simmering to tenderize the spears for puréeing. (It also makes this a virtually year-round menu addition.)

My taste testers found the custard a great spread for crackers or toast, but I prefer to serve it just-barely-warm alongside a simple green salad for a light lunch, or pair it with poached, roasted or grilled salmon or chicken for a simple but spectacular summer feast.

Asparagus Custard with Black Olive Vinaigrette

Makes 4 servings.

For the custard

1 pound asparagus, tough ends removed; 12-to-15 two-inch tips reserved
1 clove garlic, peeled and smashed
2 large eggs plus an additional egg yolk
½ cup heavy cream (or soy milk)
Zest of ½ lemon
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 teaspoons unsalted butter, at room temperature

For the vinaigrette

½ cup chopped pitted Kalamata olives
2 teaspoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
1 teaspoon sherry or red wine vinegar
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste

  1. Blanch the reserved tips for 2 to 3 minutes in a wide pan of amply salted water. Remove tips and refresh in cool water and drain. In the same pan, simmer the spears for 15 minutes until well cooked. Refresh in cool water and drain.
  2. In a food processor or blender, purée the asparagus spears, garlic, eggs, cream (or soy milk), lemon zest, salt and pepper until smooth (about 10 to 15 seconds).
  3. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Generously butter four half-cup ramekins; fill with the asparagus mixture to about a quarter-inch from the top. Place the ramekins in a small roasting pan with two-inch sides to fit and carefully fill the pan with hot water to halfway up the sides of the cups. Bake for 25 minutes on middle rack of oven.
  4. While custards cook, split the reserved asparagus tips lengthwise. Prepare the vinaigrette: In a small bowl, mix together the olives, parsley, vinegar, the remaining two tablespoons of oil, and a quarter teaspoon each salt and pepper.
  5. When custards are done, remove immediately from the water bath and cool on a wire rack. To serve, put three pieces of the split tips on the top of each custard; spoon about 1 tablespoon vinaigrette over the split tips. Best served slightly warm.

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