Sunday, 2 November 2008

Asparagus Adulation and two recipes

Asparagus inspires gentle thoughts
Charles Lamb

When I looked up asparagus in Yann Lovelock’s Vegetable Book which was published in 1972, he wrote that it ‘has lost much of its former popularity’. This makes sense to me because growing up in the 1970s, I don’t remember asparagus as anything other than a soggy tinned vegetable. Recently I was at my mum’s house and she pan fried some fresh asparagus and served it with good bread and cheese for lunch. Most delicious! But such a meal would never have been contemplated in my childhood. Not in my memory anyway!

But at some stage it has had a great resurgence in popularity. I remember eating it in student households in the mid-1990s because my housemate used to call it ‘sparrows’ guts’. These days it is one of the joys of spring for me, so I decided to celebrate its current abundance by investigating some history and trivia.

The asparagus is a member of the lily family (also the family of onions, garlic and leeks). It has grown wild in the eastern Mediterranean and Asia Minor since ancient times. Unlike most vegetables it is a perennial which can produce edible spears for 20 to 30 years. It has long been prized for its medicinal and vegetable qualities. Before being a food, it was lauded as a medicine for many problems from the prevention of bee stings to heart trouble, dropsy, and toothache!

Asparagus seems to date back to ancient Egyptian times with ‘something like it’ painted on the murals dating from the 3rd millennium BC and is said to have been cultivated as an offering to the gods. The Greeks loved it but it was the Romans who cultivated it for cooking. Wikipedia notes that there is a recipe for cooking asparagus in the oldest surviving book of recipes, Apicius’s third century AD De re coquinaria, Book III. I was amused by Trivia-Library.com’s claim that ‘mushy asparagus is a culinary crime, and the Emperor Augustus was said to have ordered executions to be carried out "quicker than you can cook asparagus."’ This Roman saying appears in many asparagus histories but only on Trivia-Library.com is it linked to executions which I can’t help thinking might have been the punishment for mushy asparagus.

After the fall of the Roman Empire, the popularity of cultivated asparagus declined in Europe. Colin Spencer mentions that it was thought that the barbarians had destroyed all the asparagus fields. Then in the Middle Ages it regained its popularity either in 1300 or in the 1700s depending on whom you read! King Louis XIV reputedly dubbed it the ‘King of Vegetables’. He grew asparagus in greenhouses so he could eat it year round. Louis XV’s mistress Madame de Pompadour with her eagerness for aphrodisiac foods, was rather keen on asparagus.

The most memorable modern description of the wonders of asparagus I have encountered, comes from Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. She describes the fresh stems as having ‘the tight, shiny sex appeal of dressed-up matrons on the dance floor of a Latin social club.’ It seems impossible for there to be any discussion of asparagus without mentioning sex and urine.

Both Gerard and Culpeper wrote of asparagus ‘increasing seed and stirring up lust’. It reportedly has appeared throughout the ages in love poems, aphrodisiac dishes and erotic literature such as the Karma Sutra. On the NichollsWorth, Darryl Holliday claims that ‘because of its shape and sensual appeal, nuns who feared it would excite the senses and imaginations of young ladies banned asparagus from girls' schools in the 19th century.’

As for the strong pong associated with the urine as a result of eating asparagus, it seems that this affects everyone who eats it, but that this has long been a matter for speculation about who it affects and why. My choice quote here is from Marcel Proust, who claimed that asparagus "...transforms my chamber-pot into a flask of perfume." Enough said!

My favourite way to eat asparagus is au natural. Steam it in the microwave til just cooked and squeeze a bit of lemon juice on it. Briefly sautée it in a pan over hot heat. Give it to me in a salad, please. I recently tried a miso sauce over asparagus. It had a strong salty miso taste. I preferred less cover-up on my asparagus. On the other hand, E really liked the asparagus cooked in this sauce – he tells me that asparagus is usually just green sticks but this jazzed it up a bit. Seems it will please some who have not yet learned to love asparagus for its lovely fresh flavours. So I have included it below for those types. It went well with Pamela’s Potato, Tomato and Onion Gratin

However, I was more taken by Haalo’s recent elegant White and Green Asparagus Tart. It looked lovely but I was surprised to hear that white asparagus is a result of growing asparagus in the dark. I don’t see the point. Colours enthuse me and Expatriate Chef’s photo of green and purple asparagus did inspire me. I had visions of finding purple asparagus in Melbourne but it was not to be. Besides, Colin Spencer claims that green asparagus tastes best. But I was now keen on making an asparagus tart. I remembered seeing Susan’s Asparagus and Mushroom Quiche many months ago and loving her wheel-like display of asparagus.

With this in mind, I sought a tart or quiche recipe but in the end didn’t have the energy for pastry and decided to try an Alison Holst recipe for a self-crusting quiche. I have made these before where the flour is mixed into the filling and sinks to the bottom during cooking to form a crust. It has worked before but not this week. However, it tasted fantastic. The filling had potato which is fine accompaniment to asparagus and a few other vegies. It was best the second night when I did a nice green salad to serve with it – tomato, cucumber, capsicum and rocket with some balsamic and olive oil. But even just served with beetroot and apple chutney the first night it was nothing to be sneezed at.

I have included the recipes for the Grilled Miso Asparagus and Crustless Asparagus and Potato Quiche below, plus a list of ideas for other asparagus recipes. Asparagus has such a short season that it begs to be flaunted and featured. It is not possible to substitute the tinned stuff. Out of season, broccoli is a great substitute but peas and capsicum can also do the trick.

Asparagus-centric recipes from my blog:
Asparagus, artichoke and wild rice salad
Asparagus, capsicum and rocket salad
Asparagus, mint and lemon risotto
Asparagus sauce
Lentil salad with haloumi and asparagus
Spring risotto soup

Other recipes from my blog using asparagus:
Cool green spring soup
Orange, berry and green salad
Curried cashew and vegetable soup
Roasted vegetable pasta
Thai style vegetable salad with noodles
Fried rice
Peasant potato salad

Tempting asparagus recipes from around the blogosphere:
Asparagus ravioli – 28 Cooks
Asparagus with roasted garlic sauce – Fat Free Vegan
Char-grilled asparagus courgette and haloumi salad – Cooksister
Roasted asparagus tapenade – Have Cake Will Travel
Roasted asparagus with creamy tahini peanut dipping sauce – Kalyn’s Kitchen
Sexy spring pasta with roasted asparagus and tomato – Karina’s Kitchen: recipes from a gluten free goddess

I am sending the quiche to Kalyn for Weekend Herb Blogging. This week marks the 3rd anniversary of this weekly event encouraging bloggers to blog about herbs, fruits and vegetables. A fine achievement! It will also mark Kalyn passing on the gauntlet to Haalo of Cook (Almost) Anything at Least Once. Haalo (a Melbourne blogger) regularly posts about curious and amazing new foods such as peas in purple pods and is sure to continue the great work of Kalyn.

Crustless Asparagus and Potato Quiche
(adapted from Alison Holst’s Meals without Meat)
Serves 4

3 small potatoes (about 200g), diced
1 tsp olive oil
4 large silverbeet (chard) leaves, shredded
½ medium carrot, grated
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
3 spring onions, finely chopped
1 bunch (200g) asaparagus, ends snapped off
½ cup plain yoghurt
½ cup milk
3 eggs
½ cup gruyere cheese, grated
½ cup tasty cheese, grated
½ cup self raising flour

Simmer diced potato for 10-15 minutes til soft. Wilt silverbeet leaves, carrot, garlic and spring onion in oil in a medium hot fry pan for 2-5 minutes (until just soft). Lightly steam asparagus spears. Cut to fit halfway across your flan dish (NB if they are just a little too big, they will shrink when cooking). Chop the trimmings from the spears.

Mix all ingredients except asparagus spears and flour together in a large mixing bowl. If you want to aim for a crust to appear, Alison advises to only just mix in the flour at the end.

Pour into a greased 20-23cm flan dish (I used a 20cm cake tin – Alison said not to use a flan dish with a push out bottom). Arrange spears on top of mixture with cut ends in centre and heads at the edge to create a star or spokes pattern.

Bake at 220 C for 20-30 minutes for a 23cm dish and 30-40 minutes for 20 cm dish. It is cooked when golden brown on top and firm to touch. Serve with chutney and/or green salad.

Grilled Miso Asparagus
(source unrecorded in my notebook)
Serves 2

1 bunch (about 200g) asparagus, trimmed
1 tbsp white miso
1 tsp agave syrup
1 tbsp tamari
1 tbsp mirin
1 tsp sesame oil

Mix all ingredients except asparagus. Steam asparagus lightly. Toss in sauce and place on chargrill (or very hot frypan) for about 1 minute. Serve with remaining sauce.

On the Stereo:
Grateful Dead (skull and roses): Grateful Dead

12 comments:

  1. This sounds realy good, although I am wondering what will happen if I use one of my spring release cake tins. I wouldn't have thought it would leak out. Did your cake tin have a release catch on it?

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  2. Thanks Holler - My tin wasn't a springform one but I did think it would be easier to serve if it was - the mixture wasn't that runny so I don't know why it says not to use a loose bottom based tin

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  3. What a great post about the love of asparagus! It's interesting because I don't know if I ever remember eating it when I was a kid. We had a family with ten kids, and although we weren't poor, it probably wasn't in the budget. Now I love every type of asparagus dish, as long as it uses fresh asparagus. Never seen the purple type here either, though we do have the white ones once in a while. I'm thinking that when I'm retired (soon!) I'll try growing it myself!

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  4. This looks very enticing! I'm very intrigued by the self-assembling quiche, too. And the history lesson was great - always a winner in my book :)

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  5. A well researched post Johanna and a tempting recipe!

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  6. That first picture looks so appetising and vibrant with the asparagus!

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  7. thanks Kalyn - interesting to see that asparagus was favourite vegetable in your poll - wonder if you will be able to grow purple asparagus!

    thanks Lysy - I am sure I have made the self-crusting quiche before with more success - I wasn't quite sure if this was a quiche or fritatta without the crust but fritatta just sounded wrong!

    thanks Lisa - I am sure it is the little strategically placed spears of asparagus that are tempting you :-)

    thanks Lorraine - there is something very photogenic about asparagus!

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  8. Great, informative post as always! So cool to find out all the uses and associations with asparagus. I, like you, prefer mine as is without too much gussying up (and never had a taste for the white stuff--perhaps it's that darkness!).

    The quiche does look lovely, though. :)

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  9. thanks Ricki - I don't think I have tasted white asparagus but the idea doesn't enthuse me - whereas the brilliant green of asparagus always does!

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  10. lovely! i love asparagus too. i could just munch on it. when it gets super cheap i make a lovely soup out of it. i love it bbqed with some lemon and pinenuts to serve

    we alos only ate them tinned as a kid. thank god things have changed!

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  11. Thanks for the link to my asparagus post! I would debate in favor of the flavor of purple, but it is pretty hard to find. Nice recipes!

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  12. thanks Ran - I put asparagus into veg soups but never have soups that feature asparagus - would be interested to hear about your soups

    thanks expatriate chef - was v inspired by your lovely looking quiche and the purple asparagus - what a shame it is so hard to find!

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