This is the final article in February of the School for Housewives 1907 series published on February 24, 1907, and is a discussion on how to cook asparagus.
Transcribed from the Sunday edition of Boston Sunday Post.
Different Ways of Preparing Asparagus
THE high rank of “Asparagus officinalis” awarded to this child of the early springtime justifies us in making it the subject of a paper entirely given up to its nature, works and ways. It was in high favor in imperial Rome. The epicurean patrician— when the modern master would say, “Be quick about it!” and the city conductor would growl, “Step lively!”—enjoined his slave to “do it in less time than is needed to cook asparagus!”
Most of us are familiar with the tale of the two French gourmands who quarreled over the rival merits of oil and butter in cooking asparagus, finally compromising by sending word to the cook to prepare half of the vegetable with butter and half with oil. The friends chatted amicably for awhile after the point was settled. Suddenly the advocate of butter, who was the guest of the other, fell down in a fit. The host raised him and saw that he was dead. Whereupon he laid down the lifeless body, ran to the head of the kitchen stairs and shouted to the chef: “Do it all in oil! The butter-man is dead!”
An American lover of the table avers that Asparagus officinalis “is an aristocrat from tip to stalk.” All of which goes to prove that the owner of the high-sounding title differs utterly from human upstarts. He is an upstart, nevertheless, and the further he gets away from his native soil the less worthy is he.
AT ITS BEST IN VIRGINIA
In Virginia, where our aristocrat of the kitchen-garden is at his best, he is systematically kept under the surface of the ground. Asparagus is planted in rows, and as it peeps above the earth, it is banked out of sight, the long lines of rich mould rising steadily to keep pace with its growth. As a result, when the asparagus is cut for the table it is bleached from root to tip and tender throughout. It took me a long time to learn to accept the spindling green stalks offered in Northern markets as asparagus. Sometimes German green-grocers and market-women called it “grass.” This was said to be a perversion of the stately name. Indeed, country folk often spoke of it as “sparrowgrass.” A half century ago Frederic Cozzens, genial and loving humorist, made us laugh with him at the bucolic ambitions of Mr. Sparrowgrass and his spouse. We quote him to this day.
PREJUDICE AGAINST “GRASS”
I own, frankly, to a rooted prejudice against the “grass,” which time and usage have not overcome. My heart still turns fondly to the plump and pale columnettes grown in Southern market-gardens. Yet I am told that what medicinal virtues are inherent in asparagus are more, potent in the green spindles than in the bleached larger stalks. I am quite ready to believe the further assertion that these virtues are eliminated from canned asparagus and that the delicate straw-color of the closely packed stalks is due to chemical agents. We all know how flavorless the canned imitation is by comparison with the fresh vegetable.
Like other succulent growths, asparagus depreciates quickly when drawn from the earth. If cooked within an hour or two after it is cut, the twenty minutes’ boil recommended by cook-books will send it to table tender and good. It has long been my custom to cut off half an inch from the lower part of asparagus bought in the markets and to set the stalks upright in water as I do with cut flowers. It responds gratefully to the treatment, growing crisp and plump in a few hours. A damp cloth should be thrown over it and the vessel in which it stands.
Boiled Asparagus (English Style).
Cut off an inch from the lower part of the stalks and scrape them from end to end with a sharp knife, taking off the thin outer skin alone, without bruising the rest. All the stalks must be of equal length. Bind them into a bunch and set up right in a saucepan of boiling water slightly salted, just deep enough to leave over an inch of the tips out of water. Lay clean stones about the base of the stalks to prevent them from tipping over. Fit a close cover on the saucepan to keep in the steam, and after you feel that the boil has begun, cook twenty minutes.
Take up the asparagus, drain off all the water, untie the threads and lay the stalks, alternately tip to base, on a hot dish. Cover with a good drawn butter and serve.
This might be called a “steamed” rather than boiled asparagus, the distinctive feature of the process being that the tips are steamed and thus left plumper and less sodden than if immersed with the stalks in the boiling water. If the asparagus be withered and stale, cook for twenty-five minutes.
Boiled Asparagus (German Style).
Cut two inches from the lower part of the stalks. (The thrifty German housewife never throws these away. They go into the stockpot, adding pleasantly to the flavor).
Scrape off the woody skin and tie into bunches of a dozen stalks each. Lay at length in a saucepan and cover with boiling water. Put on a cover and cook fast for ten minutes; then add an even teaspoonful of salt and a heaping teaspoonful of butter. Cook for fifteen minutes more; drain, lay on buttered toast and pour over it a cupful of drawn butter based on milk, into which a beaten egg has been stirred and heated for one minute. Season the white sauce with salt and pepper.
Baked Asparagus (Italian Style).
Cut the stalks short, as directed in the last recipe, and cook tender in salted
Boiling water. Drain and cover the bottom of a buttered bakedish with a layer, arranging in alternate rows of tips to the ends of the stalks. Have ready this sauce: Drawn butter, based upon a cup of hot milk thickened with a roux of a tablespoonful of flour cooked smooth with a scant tablespoonful of butter; the yolks of two eggs beaten light and two heaping tablespoonfuls of Parmesan cheese. Cover the layer of asparagus with this, dust lightly with cayenne, put in the rest of the asparagus, arranged as before; pour the remainder of the sauce on this and sift fine crumbs that have been dried in the oven on the top of all. Bake, covered, for ten minutes, then brown delicately.
This is a savory entree, and much liked by those who have eaten it in Italy. Parmesan cheese must be used in the manufacture. No other kind will give the right flavor.
With a cake-cutter cut rounds of stale French bread an inch and a half thick. With a cutter a size smaller mark a circle in the centre of each round to the depth of an inch. Carefully take out the crumb defined by this circle, leaving a well-rounded well, with a thin layer of bread at the bottom. Fry these to a light, even brown in salted fat, and fill with the following mixture:
Cook the tips of a bunch of asparagus tender in water to which you have added a little salt and a teaspoonful of butter. Drain, pepper; mix with a rich drawn butter; return to the fire, and when it simmers stir into it (carefully, not to break the tips) a beaten egg. Simmer for a minute; arrange the hot “cups” on a heated platter and fill them with the mixture.
Serve very hot. You may improve the entree by sifting Parmesan cheese over the filled cups and setting in the oven for a minute. It is very good, prepared in either way.
A Scallop of Asparagus (Swiss Style).
Leave but an inch of the stalk below the tender part of the tips. Cook tender in boiling water, salted, adding a bit of butter at the end of ten minutes. Drain and dispose a layer in a well-buttered bakedish. Have ready six eggs boiled hard. Rub the yolks to powder, season with pepper and salt and strew thickly over the asparagus. Dot with butter and put in the rest of the asparagus. Pour over the top a cupful of milk heated to scalding, then thickened with a roux made by stirring together in a pan over the fire a great spoonful of butter with a tablespoonful of flour. Cover this sauce with very fine, dry crumbs, stick bits of butter in it, pepper and sift Parmesan cheese over all. Bake for fifteen minutes, covered, in a brisk oven, then uncover and brown lightly.
The tips are used for this dish.
Make a roux by frying a sliced onion in three tablespoonfuls of butter, until the onion is slightly colored. Strain it out, then return the butter to the fire and stir into it a heaping tablespoonful of flour, a teaspoonful of lemon juice, a dash of paprika and a tablespoonful of curry powder. Have ready heated in another saucepan a cupful of milk (adding a pinch of soda), and stir it gradually into the roux, removing it from the fire to do this. Set again on the range, stir for a few seconds and pour over the asparagus tips, which have been cooked tender in salted boiling water, drained and arranged in a deep dish.
A delightful side dish when cold lamb or cold chicken is the piece de resistance.
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