I made a trip over the weekend to Hong Kong Market, on Behrman highway, and was pleasantly surprised to see they had white asparagus on sale for $1.99/lb. It wasn’t something I’d gone there expecting to buy, but I take lagniappe where I can get it these days.
Many moons ago it was impressed upon me by my father that white asparagus is a delicacy. I was probably 8, and not all that impressed at the time, but I’ve never gotten over the sense that there’s something special about a vegetable over which such care is taken. White asparagus is not really different from the green variety we see for sale more often; its color is the result of being grown in the dark, meaning it never has a chance to develop chlorophyll. I also think it has a more subtle flavor, but I suppose it could just be nostalgia.
Whether it’s inherently tastier or not, I do know a good deal when I see one. Asparagus is a spring vegetable, and though we’re decidedly into summer, I figured we’re close enough. To top things off, asparagus is something that everybody in my family enjoys, meaning I came home with a couple of pounds and started thinking about how I was going to cook it.
The classic preparation is to boil the peeled stalks in salted water and then serve them with a hollandaise sauce. When I buy pencil-thin green asparagus, I usually roast it with lemon juice and minced zest, garlic and herbs. This time, though, I was going to serve the stalks with beef and some sort of lemony greens, so I decided on something a little richer: a gratin.
Gratin is more a method of preparation than a recipe; it’s a dish topped with a crust – usually bread crumbs, cheese or a combination of the two – browned before service. There’s often a béchamel involved, as in better versions the American “Potatoes au gratin” that is the most familiar take on the recipe here.
For inspiration, I looked through a few cookbooks and did a Google search for “white asparagus.” It’s not that I don’t know how to cook it, but I find looking at recipes sometimes gives me an idea that I wouldn’t otherwise have come up with. In this instance, one recipe I found useful was from chef Jean Georges Vongerichten, and while I didn’t actually follow the recipe, I did like the idea of using the shavings from the stalks to make a broth, which in turn served as the base of a béchamel.
So after I peeled the two pounds of asparagus and trimmed the dry bottom ends, I added the trimmings to a pot of lightly salted boiling water and let it simmer for about 20 minutes. I tied the peeled stalks into a bundle and added them to the water as well. It took about 5-6 minutes for them to cook, after I removed them, strained the broth, and used a cup of it to make a béchamel. I will admit that I also added a couple of tablespoons of heavy cream, because I don’t think I could actually make a béchamel without some sort of milk product.
The rest of the dish couldn’t be easier – put the cooked spears into a baking dish just big enough to fit them all in one layer. Season with salt, then top the stalks with béchamel, cheese (I used Gruyere) and bread crumbs. It takes 3-4 minutes under my broiler to finish. Ideally, you want to broil it just before you serve, but this is not a dish that requires absolute precision.
You can do this with green asparagus, of course, but it will work best if you use more mature versions, those pencil-thin stalks will get lost in the sauce, and the crust to asparagus ratio will be lost. If you’ve got a recipe for asparagus, or more relevant to my current garden, zucchini, please share.