Critiques, Cravings and Conundrums From the Madison Food and Dining Scene
May 19, 2014
10:22 AMSmall Dishes
With Asparagus Here, It's Stalking Season
When it comes to green vegetables, asparagus is the new peas. When a fresh vegetable is included on a restaurant’s menu, inevitably it’s asparagus. When I was growing up, it would have been a spoonful of peas instead—and most likely canned! Asparagus has never been more popular. Once it was a luxury that few enjoyed fresh except during a brief period in the spring when harvested locally. Thanks to modern transportation and new varieties and methods of cultivation, it’s now available at the supermarket year-round.
Today, California produces more than 50,000 tons of asparagus annually—about seventy percent of all that’s commercially raised in the U.S. There’s no difference between green and white asparagus other than how it’s grown. The stalks are kept covered by a thick layer of mulch or earth, blocking sunlight and photosynthesis that produces chlorophyll and the green color. Purple asparagus is a variety developed in Italy that turns green when cooked.
Quite honestly, the only asparagus I’ve ever encountered that had no redeeming value was the kind that came in a can. My aunt (the one who fancied Jell-O) insisted on serving it when she was trying to impress someone. Even consumed with her monogramed sterling silver flatware it was pallid, squashy and virtually tasteless. It made an impression on me that has lasted a lifetime. I also vividly remember the first time I had perfectly steamed fresh asparagus blanketed with hollandaise sauce at Galatoire’s and marveled at how any vegetable could taste so exquisite.
There’s no substitute for homegrown asparagus consumed as soon after harvesting as possible. Just like corn, it contains sugars that turns to starch after picking. If you’re lucky enough to have stalks right from your garden or a local farm, you should soak them in cold water for about fifteen minutes to get rid of any grit.
The assertion that pencil-thin stalks are somehow superior to the big, thick ones is a myth. It’s just an indication of how old the growing bed is. Asparagus is a perennial and young beds yield thin stalks. More important in selecting asparagus is to look for stalks that are bright green, rigid and have closed tips. After gently rinsing in cold water, wrap the butts in a damp paper towel and store in the refrigerator in a sealed plastic bag.
There’s contention about whether to peel asparagus. Definitely it isn’t necessary for tender stalks or tips. If you do decide to peel it, use a vegetable peeler to remove the skin about two-thirds of the way up the stalk. White asparagus, which is more fibrous, must be peeled before cooking.
Whether dining at home or at a restaurant, there are many ways to enjoy asparagus besides plain boiled.
Every year in May, Harvest hosts its Asparagus Dinner: six courses of asparagus—appetizer to dessert—all paired with wine!
Lombardino’s showcases an Italian classic, Asparagus alla Milanese: sautéed asparagus topped with a fried egg and Parmigiano-Reggiano. Another taste of spring on its menu is the creamy asparagus soup with a touch of spinach, croutons and crème fraiche.
At Fresco, the grilled asparagus salad includes frisée, roasted wild mushrooms, hard-boiled egg, toasted pepitas and fried chevre; napped with a mustard-tarragon vinaigrette. It’s a welcome oasis in a desert of mixed field greens.
Forget the red sauce. Artichokes sautéed in white wine and garlic compliment Osteria Papavero’s house-made tortelli stuffed with asparagus.
Each Saturday night Salvatore’s Tomato Pies crafts a special seasonal pizza. Truly wow-worthy was a recent creation topped with asparagus, morels, fresh tomatoes, prosciutto and smoked Gouda.
At Red Sushi there’s nothing fishy about the crunchy and savory asparagus tempura roll.
When La Baguette, a famed French bakery in Minocqua, opened a branch in Madison many were already fans of its authentic French bread and pastries. However, the quiche aux asperges est magnifique!
Asparagus has an affinity for eggs, cheese and ham, so the omelet on the breakfast and brunch menu at La Brioche’s that combines all three wins the trifecta.
The trend is for over-the-top Bloody Mary garnishes, but a stalk of pickled asparagus is always tasteful. Smo Diddly’s is a family-owned business located in Lynn Center, Illinois, that specializes in only one product, the very best pickled asparagus. All three varieties are available my mail order.
RECIPE: Roasted Asparagus with Sherry Vinaigrette
2 lbs asparagus
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 ounces Parmigiano-Reggiano, shaved paper-thin
Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
Toss the asparagus gently with the olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Arrange in a single layer on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Roast for 25 minutes. Meanwhile, make the vinaigrette.
Remove the asparagus from the oven and drizzle with the vinaigrette. Serve garnished with the cheese.
1/4 tsp minced shallot
1/2 tsp Dijon mustard
1 tbsp sherry vinegar
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Whisk the shallot, mustard, and sherry vinegar together in a small bowl. Continue whisking and add the olive oil in a steady stream. Continue to whisk until thoroughly combined. Season with salt and pepper.
Serves 4 to 6.