Spring is here people! Let’s not mess around. It’s party time. Nothing says early springtime like the first imported Mexican asparagus!
Asparagus is coming in fast and furious so get your shizzle on the dizzle and take this opportunity to make you friends pine with desire and oooh and ahhh as you serve this great dish at your next private party. This is finger food at its most refined. Kind of sexy, and simple to make.
Look for the freshest, best asparagus you can find, right off the boat (I mean plane, or big produce delivery truck) – from Europe, South America or Mexico. Right now asparagus can be found at your favorite vegetable market and better food stores for as little as .99 cents to $1.99 per pound. Not expensive for such an extravagance. Buy the nice thick ones, and check the bottom of the bunch; it should be white, not brown.
Equipment-wise, there is one catch. You’ll need a decent peeler. A little hard to find, I know. If you have to dig through your scary drawer to find one, it’s probably not worth using. Invest in a new vegetable peeler. The OXO brand makes a good one.
I happen to like kitchen gadgets that are specifically made for one purpose. The coolest thing you can buy yourself on-line or at a Williams-Sonoma store is a German asparagus peeler. Look for it. Find it. Buy it. It’s a funky peeler made especially for peeling asparagus and it’s totally old school and very cool. I guess nobody peels asparagus like the Germans. Except me, and probably every decent top chef when working their fine-dining restaurants and cooking at home. And you should too.
Unless I am grilling the suckers over very hot coals – where I want an almost scorched, little crunchy skin on – peel your asparagus. Only amateurs – and lazy cooks – leave the skin on each asparagus. For cold preparations and as a warm side dish, I think it is much cooler to peel each spear, so it’s naked and tender and green. Spring-time in your fingers, and in your mouth.
And this sauce: super sexy, but a bit tricky. No worries – I’ll teach you.
3-4 pounds asparagus, the freshest, thickest, meanest, bad-ass asparagus you can find. (Size matters – thick is good, thin; not so much)
1 big metal bowl
1 medium-size metal bowl
1 asparagus peeler (or a decent vegetable peeler)
1 big chef’s spoon
1 pair of long spring-loaded tongs
1 sanitized cutting board, the bigger the better
1 sharp big knife
1 6-quart stock pot, with a lid; aka – a pasta pot
1 big oval serving platter – I like white or stainless steel platters
1. Fill the pasta pot ¾ full with water, cover and bring to a boil.
2. Prepare the asparagus spears. Keeping the bunches intact – I leave the rubber bands on here – cut off and discard the bottom 3-4 inches of the asparagus bunches, depending on their length. Then I peel them, one at a time. Skins are gonna fly, so be efficient and stay on task. In less than 5 minutes, I’m done.
3. Blanch the asparagus spears. Have a big bowl of ice water ready. Salt the boiling water heavily – about 2 tablespoons, measured in the palm of your hand. Add the asparagus all at once, give them a gentle stir with a big spoon and cook about 2 minutes at a decent boil. The asparagus shouldn’t be too crowded, the water must be salted and it must be boiling. This is called blanching, students. Test after 2 minutes by dropping a spear in the ice water, let it cool and taste it. It should be firm, but yielding to the bite. It should be perfect – undercooked is better than overcooked. Not limp.
4. Shock ‘um. I fish the spears out of the boiling water with my long spring-loaded tongs and plunge them in the ice water to stop the cooking. When they’re cold, I drain them and dry them on paper towels and mound them on a big oval platter. Keep them cold in the fridge till ready to serve.
Now for the Blood Orange Hollandaise
Small California blood oranges are coming to the end of their season, but are still available right now for about $2 per pound at better produce markets and farmers markets. They are sweet and sour, and their flesh and juice is a very sexy red color. They’re great mixed with naval oranges, cara-cara oranges and grapefruit in a fruit salad, but the juice color is unlike anything else, so use blood oranges now, especially for this variation on a classic hollandaise.
1 little 2-cup saucepan
1 decent spoon
1 1-cup Pyrex liquid measuring cup, with a spout
1 medium-size metal bowl
1 wire whisk
1 rubber spatula
1 little serving bowl
2 farm fresh eggs. The eggs have to be the best eggs you can find. Seriously.
2 sticks (1/2 cup) good-quality unsalted butter
2 blood oranges
1 small glass of chilled white wine
s and p (that’s kosher salt and fresh ground black pepper).
Chef Willie’s Tip of the Month
Always buy whole peppercorns. Don’t use the pre-ground pepper from the supermarket – that stuff is crap. In fine dining restaurants, good cooks grind peppercorns everyday. Pepper mills may look cool, but they’re inconsistent. And I don’t have time to grind pepper over my food every time I need it. I grind my peppercorns once a week in a coffee grinder, strain it over wax paper, tilt the fine powder into a ramekin and save the course ground peppercorns for making rubs for red meat or for seasoning salads– it’s totally worth it. The same goes for ground white peppercorns, which I also have as part of my mise-en-place next to the stove. As Thomas Keller says in his great book “Ad Hoc at Home” seasoning with s and p is very important. I agree.
1. Clarify the butter. I cut my butter into pieces and gently melt it over low heat in my little pan. You can’t rush this step – just let it do its thing. A white milky sludge will fall to the bottom, the middle of the melted butter will become perfectly clear and a crusty foam will rise to the top. I use a decent spoon and get ride of the foam. Then I decant the clarified liquid butter into a Pyrex measuring cup, stopping just before the milky sludge comes. Try not to get any milky sludge in your clarified butter, for real. Discard the foam and the sludge. And keep that clarified butter warm, so it stays liquid.
2. Prepare the hollandaise. I squeeze the juice from 2 blood oranges through a strainer into my medium-size metal bowl. On the stove, I bring about and inch of water to a boil in my 2-quart sauce pan, then set it to a low simmer. I crack my eggs and add the yolks to blood orange juice, and save the whites for another use, like egg white omelets, buttercream, mousses and meringues. Season with a good pinch of salt (hold off on the pepper till the end) and whisk the blood orange juice and the yolks vigorously. Add a splodge of white wine, and drink the rest. Now we’re in business.
Place the bowl over the simmering water to heat the blood orange/eggy/wine mixture, whisking constantly. As I work it, the mixture goes through a few stages: first there will some foam on the top, while the bottom stays liquid. Keep whisking. Then the foam will start to get firm and stick to the sides of the bowl – ‘cause it’s hot. Stay in control people – just lift the bowl off the water if it is getting too hot, whisk like hell, and return it over the steam. Keep whisking and bring the mixture together so it all turns to hot foam. It will double in volume. And it will go a little brown on you. I add a squeeze of lemon and it magically goes back to the blood orange color – a nice sexy orange/red. What you have here is a blood orange zabaglione, which is fine – kind of old school Italian grandmother. You could stop right here if you want. But I’m gonna keep going and get that clarified butter in there and make it a hollandaise, ‘cause I want that buttery richness for the asparagus.
Off the heat, I add the warm clarified butter in a slow steady stream, whisking carefully to emulsify the sauce. It will deflate a little bit, which is totally cool, but don’t go nuts. Keep some air in the sauce. Finally, I check for seasoning, perhaps a pinch of s and p and another squeeze of lemon. The sauce should be super buttery, orange-pink, citrus-y, and bright – not at all dull. Get the sauce into a pretty little serving bowl, and use it like a dip right away for the chilled asparagus.
I also like to spoon the hollandaise over individual portions of chilled asparagus – about 5 per person – as a nice first course. Or I warm the asparagus in a sauté pan with a little melted butter and a splash of white wine and serve the asparagus as a side dish to grilled fish. The citrusy hollandaise sauce goes really well with fish, trust me! It’s a little unusual, seasonal and it’s pretty. It will blow your guests away, guaranteed.