Authors: A Veggie Venture
~more recently updated recipes~
First the asparagus. At Easter, my favorite dish at a magnificent brunch prepared by a former White House chef and recent Silver Toque winner was, um, yes, the asparagus. Aiii it was good – arrayed on huge platters, stems peeled halfway to the tips and perfectly salted. At first, I thought there might have been garlic in the cooking water. The chef sniffed at that idea so hmm, perhaps not. At home, it took three tries and three pounds of asparagus to get the salt balanced properly. Yes, I concede, dozens of spears were sacrificed to get the salt right. (2011 Update: Chef Chambrin is the source of the recipe for Raspberry Bliss, my first column in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch!)
SALT It's another ingredient with (in my mind) an undeserved bad reputation. Because salt is "bad" for us, we cook rice and pasta and eggs and – heavens, vegetables – with minimal salt and even – horrors – without salt. Our bodies require salt. My solution, my rationalization? If we'd all just nix prepared and commercial food – and their high, high proportions of sodium – then it seems to me, we can let loose with salt for food cooked at home. I'm not a nutritionist so please don't violate a doctor's order. But I'd love to know – is salt a good thing or a bad thing in your world? How much salt would you use to cook a pound of asparagus?
Now, the aioli. There are only two hard things about aioli.
Spelling – Is it spelled aioli or aoli or ayolee or what? (It is spelled aioli, two i's.)
Pronunciation – Is it pronounced [ahy-oh-lee] or [a-yaw-lee] or [?-?h-lee]? (Experts vary.) Please, don't trust my choice of #3, not from the bookworm who confidently corrected her 7th grade history teacher's pronunciation of the 15th president – you know, James Boo-cha-nan.
After that, aioli is dead easy. Just whisk together garlic, egg yolk, lemon juice, mustard and olive oil. Better yet, get out the food processor. At first I tried the whisk 'n' willpower method to make aioli. After ten minutes, I was bored to tears and my wrists were done-in. Kitchen power tools, people, they're great – it took all of a minute for the mini food processor attachment to the immersion blenderto whip this to a good consistency, someplace between mayonnaise and heavy cream, thick enough to dip into, thin enough for a slow pour. Once you master a basic recipe for aioli, there are many variations, adding herbs for brightness or bits of vegetable (red pepper, say) for color.
2011 & 2013: Each year, I find myself making one platter after another of asparagus cooked like this. The salt is so important. So is keeping the asparagus quite crisp.
Hands-on time: 25 minutes
Time to table: 25 minutes but can/maybe should be made in advance
Serves: It depends on who's eating!
8 cups water
3 tablespoons kosher salt (or 1-1/2 tablespoons table salt though not recommended)
1 pound asparagus, thick spears are best for this
Bring the water to a boil on MEDIUM HIGH in a pan that's able to hold the asparagus, flat, in no more than two layers with water to spare between the spears. (I use a 9x13 pan.) When the water comes to a boil, add the salt and stir a bit to dissolve. (If using more water, the ratio is 4 cups water:1-1/2 tablespoons kosher salt.)
While the water comes to a boil, fill another pan with ice, then cold water. Have this ready before the asparagus goes into the boiling water, you want it to be really cold.
Meanwhile, wash the asparagus well. (Chew on a tip. If it's gritty, keep washing.) (1) With a vegetable peeler, peel the skins off the asparagus, about half-way up. Work carefully, you really don't want any skin. (2) Now snap off the woody ends. Start by bending somewhere near the end, moving your way up until the spear breaks off by itself. (3) If aesthetics are important, now slice a bit off the ends for evenness.
Drop all the asparagus at once into the pan and let cook til done, maybe three or four minutes, maybe six or even eight, it depends on how thick the spears are and how chilled they were when being dropped into the water. Lift one out and test. Once they're done, lift out all the asparagus and immediately drop into the ice water. (This is the "shocking" process, like moving from a hot sauna into the icy sea.) Leave them in the water just long enough to cool down (we don't want them soggy), then transfer immediately onto several layers of paper towels to drain and dry, tapping the top sides too.
For a party, these can be made several hours in advance. To my taste, the asparagus should be served at a temperature somewhere between well-chilled and room temperature. Be sure to make plenty, people LOVE cold asparagus, allow at least six spears per person.
Hands-on time: 10 minutes
Time to table: 10 minutes but can be made in advance
Makes about 6 tablespoons
2 garlic cloves, chopped small
1 egg yolk
2 teaspoons lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard
7 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil (the good stuff, I use gorgeous olive oil from O Olive Oil)
Salt & pepper to taste (I used no salt, just a little lemon pepper, excellent)
Whisk together the garlic, yolk, lemon juice and mustard -- alternatively do a whiz or two in a small food processor (there's not enough volume for a big food processor). Slooooowly drizzle in the olive oil while whisking or processing, being sure to incorporate what's been added before adding more.
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