By Michelle Hum

French White Asparagus, by Barbara Redmond

Barbara Redmond

There are some memories you never forget. When it comes to food, it is hard to forget the first time you tried something amazing. The first time I had dim sum was about 13 years ago at a restaurant in Chicago with my family. My first gnocchi was in Rome eight months ago with a friend from high school. The first time I had white asparagus was almost a year ago as asparagus season started in France.

Spring was coming to Montpellier, France. The days had gotten warm enough that even the French abandoned their scarves and heavy coats. My host family and I started eating dinner on the patio where we could listen to the chatter of the piafs (a colloquial term for sparrows in reference to Edith Piaf). My host mom brought out a plate of white asparagus dressed with a simple olive oil, balsamic, mustard vinaigrette. Cooked until limp, the meat was as soft as its delicate flavor. As we ate, my host dad explained how the very best white asparagus comes from his home region: Alsace.

Asparagus has a rich history in Europe. The Greeks began growing it as early as 600 BCE and it flourished in central Europe. In particular, Hoerdt in Alsace has accrued notoriety for its production of asparagus over the centuries. Also in France, King Louis XIV enjoyed this vegetable so much, he built special greenhouses in Versailles so he could enjoy it year-round. Today, even commoners can enjoy asparagus despite the season. However, the best time of year is generally April to June.

Although asparagus spread to America when our forefathers brought forth onto this continent a new nation, one often only sees the green variety in stores. While purple asparagus is different, white and green asparagus are the same plant. The only divergence is the white variety is grown in the dark. This is either achieved by growing it indoors or by constantly covering the sprouts with extra top soil. As soon as light touches the plant, the tips will turn pink and then green. When grown outside, as soon as the tips peek above the added soil, workers must cut into the dirt blindly to harvest it. The intensity of labor required restricts the supply making white asparagus more expensive, but also a delicacy.

In addition to being a delicacy, asparagus is widely regarded as an aphrodisiac. Its high level of vitamin A is reputed to increase libido and vitamin E is linked to the production of sex hormones. Madame de Pompadour, Louis XV’s mistress and enthusiast of love potions, is said to have commonly requested asparagus served with a crushed hard-boiled egg to increase her performance. Throughout history it seems as though good food and sex often go hand in hand.

Despite the many ways asparagus can be prepared, I have always preferred steaming it al dente and topping it with a pad of butter and fresh lemon juice. However, because white asparagus is a little tougher their green relatives, this is not the best option. As the region best known for its asparagus is also known for its meats, one Alsatian specialty is Asperges aux Jambon – Asparagus with Ham. In the recipe, the asparagus is cooked until practically falls apart on your fork. The first time I had this dish was with my host family a few weeks later as the asparagus harvest reached its peak.

RECIPE FOR WHITE ASPARAGUS

Alsatian chef Jean-George Vongerichten’s recipe from Food & Wine magazine is provided below.

Ingredients

- 2 pounds fat white or green asparagus, peeled and tied into 6 bundles, peels reserved
- Salt
- 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
- Freshly ground pepper
- 1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
- Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
- 6 thin slices of smoked ham, such as Virginia ham or Black Forest
- 1 cup shredded Comté or Gruyère cheese (1/4 pound)

Directions

1. Preheat the oven to 350° and lightly butter a 9-by-13-inch shallow baking dish. Bring 8 cups of water to a boil in a very large, deep skillet. Add the asparagus peels and salt the water. Add the asparagus bundles to the skillet and cook over high heat until tender, about 12 minutes. Transfer the asparagus to a platter and pat dry. Strain the asparagus broth into a large glass measuring cup.

2. Melt the butter in a medium saucepan. Whisk in the flour and cook over moderately high heat for 1 minute. Add 1 1/2 cups of the asparagus broth and cook over moderate heat, whisking constantly, until the sauce thickens, about 5 minutes. Season the sauce with salt, pepper, lemon juice and nutmeg.

3. Remove the strings from the asparagus and loosely roll a slice of ham around each bundle. Transfer the asparagus and ham bundles to the prepared baking dish and pour the sauce on top. Sprinkle with the cheese and bake the gratin in the upper third of the oven for about 25 minutes, or until the cheese is melted and the sauce is bubbling.

Michelle Hum is a self-proclaimed Francophile and foodie. Michelle has been fortunate enough to visit countries on three continents and live in France during a semester abroad. Food has become very important to Michelle as she tries to stay connected with many of the cultures she has experienced.

A student at the University of Minnesota pursuing double majors in Psychology and Advertising and a minor in French, Michelle advises the digital aspects for A Woman’s Paris. Outside of school, you can find her perfecting her signature white chocolate fruit tarts and other treats.

You may also enjoy A Woman’s Paris® post, For the love of yaourt (yogurt), by Michelle Hum who writes about her love of French yaourt: a tangy, creamy, dairy product that can stand by itself—although a dab of honey or handful of fresh fruit never hurts. Recipe included for Gateau au Yaourt au et au Citron (Lemon Yogurt Cake) by Ina Garten. 

French Onion Soup – a Paris meal to remember, by Michelle Hum who recalls the aroma of sweet caramelized onions, dry wine, and rich broth rising from the steam from her bowl. With the first taste—serendipity. Recipe included for Julia Child’s Soupe à l’oignon (French onion soup) from her cookbook, The Way to Cook.

La Chandeleur – Le Jour des Crêpes, by Michelle Hum who introduces us to the celebration of Chandeleur, also know as Le Jour des Crêpes, and her new found favorite spread, Crème de Châtaigne (Chestnut Jam). Recipe included for crêpes by Ginette Mathiot from her book, Je Sais Cuisiner.

Tartiflette: French Comfort Food, by Michelle Hum who shares a traditional French hot dish enjoyed during ski season in the Alps as a form of warm, savory comfort. Tartiflette: a French dish of potatoes, bacon, and Reblochon cheese. Recipe and video guide included courtesy of Head Chef of London’s Coq d’Argent, Michael Weiss, who provides his own version of this Alpine specialty.

Foie Gras: “Fatty Liver” — its name can be deceiving, by Alyssa Glawe, an expatriate living in Grenoble, France.  Alyssa writes about her ‘delightful culinary adventure,’ trying foie gras for the first time at a friend’s holiday party. Foie gras, yet another “French Foods to Try” on her list, follows Alyssa’s previous stories about escargot (snails) and des cuisses de grenouille (frogs legs). Recipe included for Terrine of Foie Gras from restaurant Chez le Pèr’Gras, Grenoble, France.

Des Cuisses de Grenouille: Frogs’ legs, by Alyssa Glawe who brings to us another life-changing culinary experience from France. During her first extended stay in Grenoble, France, she experienced escargot (snails). This past year she mustered enough courage to try des cuisses de grenouille in Paris. Recipe included for Sautéed Frogs’ legs: Cuisses de Grenouille à la Provençale, courtesy of Saveur.com.

Escargot. Don’t judge a snail by its shell, by Alyssa Glawe who shares this first time, life-changing culinary experience at Paris’ oldest restaurant, La Petite Chaise, where she was overwhelmed by the taste of butter, garlic, and herbs. Recipe included for Escargot with Garlic Butter, courtesy of LifestyleFood.com.

Chocolate Mousse — debonair, dark and irresistibly rich! by Barbara Redmond who looks into this crème de la crème of mousses and uncovers the source of the original dish.  Mousse as the supreme seducer was first known as “Mayonnaise de Chocolat,” created in the 1900s by French post-impressionist artist, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Recipe included for Mousseline au Chocolat (Chocolate Mousse), by Julia Child from her book, The French Chef Cookbook

Text copyright ©2012 Michelle Hum. All rights reserved.
Illustration copyright ©2012 Barbara Redmond. All rights reserved.
barbara@awomansparis.com