Hurray! The weather has finally caught up with the asparagus. Asparagus have been crying out “spring! spring! spring!” for weeks, but until today the temperature mostly seemed to beg to differ (except for a few days back in late April when I wasn’t around to notice- thanks, sun). It took me a while to notice the asparagus’ siren call, ensconced as I was in my wintery stew-and-braise cloud. Consequently, the first three weeks of the asparagus season passed without a single bite of them passing my lips. A grave, grave oversight.
I have been making up. Last week, asparagus were on the menu on five different occasions- two of them on the same day. All of them were tasty, but the one that particularly hit the spot was the most traditional one: white asparagus with butter sauce, thin slices of ham and a boiled egg. The earthy, slightly bitter taste of the asparagus combines so well with the sweet notes of butter and cream and the slight tang of the wine in the sauce. Then there is the saltiness of the ham, and to round it off, the extra creaminess of the egg yolk. Only one word for it: yum!
I never dared make butter sauce until this year, fearing the amounts of dairy fat I would consume with every spoonful. (Quite illogical, given the amounts of cheese I eat, but there you have it.) However, when I went out of my way last week to obtain the freshest asparagus possible, spending three hours to go to an asparagus farm, I figured they deserved the special treatment. I bought a booklet with recipes at the farm, and found instructions for a suitably decadent sauce. I was in business for some serious making up for lost time.
It was a little daunting to make a reduction of three types of liquid (wine, cream, asparagus cooking liquid) and have to thicken it with cold butter- I like my sauces more foolproof. Still, I reckoned that even if it didn’t thicken, it would still taste of cream, butter, wine and asparagus mixed together. That can’t ever be bad.
If I’m honest, my sauce barely changed consistency at all (probably because I stopped adding butter at about half the recommended weight), but I was right: it was still v., v. tasty. In fact, I think I might have to do some more making up again this weekend…
Asparagus with butter sauce
2 pounds of white asparagus, unpeeled weight
water to cover
100 ml crisp, white wine
100 ml cream
50 gr cold, unsalted butter, cubed
150 gr thinly sliced ham
An hour before you want to start cooking, lay the asparagus down in a container and cover them in water. They will absorb some of the water and become as plump as they can be. If the bottoms of the asparagus look woody and dry, slice off a thin round first.
After the asparagus have soaked for an hour, snap off their woody bottoms and thoroughly peel them. The slightest bit of skin left will cause seriously unpleasant stringiness, so make sure you get every last trace. If you’ve got some time, you can boil the bottoms and peels in plenty of water for about twenty minutes, and use the liquid to boil the asparagus. Make sure to cover the peeled asparagus with a clean, moist dishcloth while they wait, so they don’t dry out.
You can also proceed immediately and use plain water to cook the asparagus. They will still be delicious. In either case, put the asparagus into a microwave-safe container wide enough to lay them flat. Cover with the cooking liquid or water and microwave on high for eight minutes*. Check for doneness by probing them with a knife. If it slides in easily, they’re done. My microwave takes ten to eleven minutes to cook two pounds of asparagus, but start checking after eight minutes because flabby asparagus are not good.
Meanwhile boil the eggs using your preferred timing method until the whites have set and the yolks are firm but still moist.
When the asparagus are done, take 100 ml of cooking liquid from the container for your sauce. Place the slices of ham on the asparagus to warm (remove enough liquid so the ham isn’t floating in the water- it will lose it flavor) and cover the bowl so the heat is retained.
Combine the asparagus cooking liquid, wine and cream in a small, thick-bottomed pot, bring to a boil and cook down until approximately half their volume. In the mean time, peel the egg. Take the pan off the heat and add the cold butter cubes one by one, whisking until a cube has dissolved before you add another. When the sauce is done, taste and add salt if it needs it. Plate the asparagus, ladle over some sauce, add half the ham and a halved egg to each plate and add a little more sauce. Serve immediately, with extra sauce on the side.
*Microwaving asparagus is a trick I learned from De Dikke Van Dam by Johannes van Dam. It is such a wonderfully easy way to boil them, I never use other methods.