Asparagus and Hollandaise Sauce – a perfect Proustian combination

Spring asparagus in the market
Spring asparagus in the market

After nearly twenty years of travelling that took my parents from post-war Germany via colonial East Africa to New Zealand, my family finally put down roots in a large ramshackle farmhouse in Buckinghamshire, surrounded by barns, old pigsties, and a huge overgrown  garden. When we moved in – it was the summer of ’68 – the flower beds were rampant with nettles and bindweed except for one, which was filled with the long feathery fronds of summer asparagus plants gone to seed.

I had never seen an asparagus plant, let alone tasted asparagus, but it became one of our favourite spring vegetables. My younger sister and I were fascinated by the curious smell asparagus gave to our pee after eating it, but that didn’t put us off – it was just too delicious! My mother would cook the freshly-picked asparagus in the wire baskets of her pressure cooker (without the lid!) and we’d eat them with a simple mix of  butter, lemon juice, salt and pepper. Perfection! Or so I thought – until, in my late teens, I ate asparagus served with Hollandaise sauce in France. To this day, it remains one of my favourite ways to serve asparagus.

Asparagus is a vegetable that a lot of people find daunting because of the apparent difficulties of cooking it. The rule book says you have to cook them vertically, in a special asparagus pot. Or, if you haven’t got a pot, you have to tie them in a bundle and again try and cook them vertically in a saucepan – not easy. The rule book also says you should cut off the tough coarse woody ends, aiming to have all your asparagus spears the same length (to put into the expensive asparagus pot!).

“My grandmother used to stand tied bundles of asparagus in tin cans, from which she had removed the tops and bottoms, in a large saucepan with a lid. So the stouter bottoms of the asparagus simmered and the fragile tips steamed.” – Judi

Well, I’ve never invested in an asparagus pot so I would recommend the following approach. Forget about cutting off the stalks – just take each spear and snap off the end. You’ll find that each spear has its ‘snapping point’ so they won’t all be the same length, but it avoids serving up asparagus stalks that are too tough and stringy. The left-over ends can be used to make asparagus soup.

Because the ‘snapping’ method means much shorter stalks, you can then either use a vegetable steamer (or a large sieve placed over a pot of boiling water as a make-shift substitute). In the vegetable steamer I lay them flat but if you use the sieve method, make sure you put them in stalks down, tips up.

Steam them for around 15 minutes, regularly checking the base of the stalks with a sharp knife to test whether they’re cooked through. You want to aim for firm, not flabby. When they’re ready, remove from the heat and allow to cool slightly before placing them on a flat serving plate.

In the meantime, you can get going with the sauce. Hollandaise Sauce has as many different ways to make it, as it has uses. My method is just one of many. It’s a wonderful sauce served up with the first baby vegetables of the season, to accompany chicken and salmon (and many other fish), and of course, it’s one of the key ingredients of Eggs Benedict.

ASPARAGUS SERVED WITH HOLLANDAISE SAUCE, SERVES TWO AS A MAIN, FOUR AS A STARTER. COOKING AND PREPARATION TIME, 30 MINUTES

1 kg of asparagus

For the sauce:

175 grams of unsalted butter, cut into cubes (to be melted)
30 grams of unsalted butter, cut into two cubes (added cold)
3 egg yolks
1 tbsp. lemon juice (plus the remainder to add according to taste)
1 tbsp. white wine
Fresh ground pepper (if you’re a purist, use white peppercorns)
Sea salt

“I separate egg yolks using the method I once saw in a film where Meryl Streep broke the egg into her left hand, turned the yolk round, letting the white run between her fingers, before dropping them into a bowl – so much easier than flipping them between the two halves of the broken shell!” – Fiona

Method

Melt the 175 grams of butter in a small saucepan over a gentle heat. You can remove it before all the butter has melted as it will continue to melt off the heat.

Now add the egg yolks to a non-stick saucepan (off the heat) and beat well, using a balloon whisk, ideally,  plastic covered – better for the non-stick surface.

Add the lemon juice and wine, a pinch of salt, and beat again. Then place over a very low heat. You’ll need gas for this – if not, place the egg mixture in a bowl over some boiling water. An electric hob simply isn’t responsive enough.

Add the first cube of cold butter and keep whisking until it’s incorporated. Then add the second cube of cold butter and whisk again, before removing from the heat.

Now add the melted butter – slowly at first – and then faster as it thickens. When it’s thick enough, you then add salt and pepper to taste, and more lemon juice – again, tasting regularly until you like it.

“If it’s not thick enough to your liking when you’ve added the extra lemon juice, you can risk placing it back on a very low heat and whisking continually until you have the consistency that suits you.” Fiona

People get scared of making Hollandaise sauce because of the risk of the egg turning into scrambled egg. If you see small granular bits in your sauce, take it straight off the heat and start adding the melted butter, whisking as if your life depends on it – it usually works!

I serve the sauce in individual bowls, so you can pick up your asparagus and dip it in the sauce. For me, this is a fingers meal – and very sensuous. The combination of the fresh, green, slightly sharp taste of the asparagus covered in the creamy, lemony, rich sauce is perfect.

Hollandaise sauce
Hollandaise sauce

The final word on asparagus has to be given to the legendary French writer, Marcel Proust. He describes asparagus thus: “tinged with ultramarine and rosy pink which ran from their heads, finely stippled in mauve and azure, through a series of imperceptible changes to their white feet, still stained a little by the soil of their garden-bed: a rainbow-loveliness that was not of this world. I felt that these celestial hues indicated the presence of exquisite creatures who had been pleased to assume vegetable form, who, through the disguise which covered their firm and edible flesh, allowed me to discern in this radiance of earliest dawn, these hinted rainbows, these blue evening shades, that precious quality which I should recognise again when, all night long after a dinner at which I had partaken of them, they played (lyrical and coarse in their jesting as the fairies in Shakespeare’s Dream) at transforming my humble chamberpot into a bower of aromatic perfume.

And if you want to know more about that ‘aromatic perfume‘ then check out this fascinating scientific explanation.

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