Flash in the Pan 

Stalking the Mother's Day asparagus

A Mother's Day brunch menu without asparagus is like a tailgate party without beer. Un-American, that is. Every May those gnomish green shoots are served with poached eggs and hollandaise, wrapped in bacon, creamed into soup, and baked into croissants with lobster in mom's honor. But nobody ever seems to stop and wonder why. Sure, asparagus is in season in some parts of the world at that time, but so are radishes, spinach, and new potatoes.

Maybe it's because asparagus is so rich in folic acid, a nutrient important for pregnant women. Or perhaps it's because all the B vitamins in asparagus will perk mom up. But I prefer to think it has something to do with the fact that back in the days when women were expected to be prim and proper, asparagus was one of the few foods you could eat with your hands in mixed company—a tidbit of culinary history that comes from Miss Manners' Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior.

This exception to standard table decorum comes from the days when real silverware was common. Since asparagus will stain silver, it was preferable to just let people use their fingers when eating it, and the custom has lingered. Miss Manners, ever the trickster, suggests we "have a marvelous time" exploiting the resultant loophole, "in company or in restaurants, and being reprimanded or at least stared at, only to have the disapproving people find out later that they were in the wrong."

Now that, folks, is living. And as we all cross our fingers that Miss Manners will release an authoritative guide to partying like an etiquette expert, I take her asparagus exception as all the proof I need that the inclusion of asparagus is mom's cue to let down her hair and enjoy her day to the fullest.

In keeping with Miss Manners' permission, I've assembled three recipes for asparagus-based finger foods. But first, a few pointers on the proper handling of mother's special vegetable.

Although some aficionados debate the respective merits of narrow- versus wide-diameter asparagus spears, I don't notice a difference in taste. But there certainly is a difference in cooking times, as the skinny members cook more quickly. So whatever you're cooking, it pays to use like-diameter spears. Some thoughtful growers are careful to bunch them accordingly, some don't, so be sure to select appropriately.

Also keep in mind that the tip is the tender end of the shoot, while the root end can be so tough you might find yourself spitting wads of fiber, an act upon which Miss Manners definitely frowns. To separate the tender from the chewy, simply hold the spear tightly at both ends and rotate the hand holding the root end. This will break the spear at the point where the woodiness ends, and you can discard the tough end.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY ARI LEVAUX

Our first silverware-free asparagus recipe comes from the ancient Roman epicurean Marcus Apicius, author of the world's oldest surviving cookbook, De Re Culinaria. He suggests pounding asparagus with pepper, lovage, coriander, savory, onion, wine, olive oil, eggs, and a fermented fish sauce called garum, and baking. I made a test batch of the stuff, dealing as best I could with the facts that no quantities are given and my local store doesn't stock garum. I used Thai fish sauce instead, and substituted chervil for savory and lovage, because that's what I had on hand.

I started with a pound of (like-diameter) asparagus, and broiled the spears for 10 minutes in a cast-iron skillet with salt, pepper, and olive oil. I began pounding the asparagus with my heavy stone mortar and pestle but decided to switch to a blender in search of silky-smooth consistency. I added a half-teaspoon each of black pepper and coriander, a quarter cup each of olive oil and white wine, a large egg, half an onion, salt to taste, and a few dribbles of fish sauce. Then I poured the green mixture into an oiled cast-iron skillet and baked it at 350 until the top began to crack and brown (about 25 minutes), at which point I removed it from the oven to cool.

Expectations for this dish were so low that all it had to do to be considered a winner was not suck. It didn't need the handicap, because the dish was quite good, tasting somewhat like spinach quiche. We ate it on crackers, but the next time around I doubled the quantities and poured the blended mixture into a piecrust and made asparagus quiche. I didn't add cheese, but don't let that stop you.

Another utensil-free mom's day treat is asparagus mayonnaise, or asparagaise for short. Start by broiling a pound of asparagus as described above, and then transfer the still-hot spears to the blender. Add a few cloves of whole garlic—as many as mom would appreciate—along with enough olive oil to allow the mixture to blend into a smooth vortex. You can also add real mayo to the blender for a creamier product. Add salt to taste.

Asparagaise can be dipped with chips, crackers, carrot sticks, or even fingers—especially if you're in mixed company and want to bait people into scowling at you.

My final recipe in this asparagus trilogy pushes the envelope of finger foods, in that the spears are covered with a thick brown garlic and oyster sauce that Miss Manners might not want on your fingers. But licking some oyster sauce off your fingers is a small price to pay for keeping your silver unstained.

Cut the asparagus into one- or two-inch lengths and sauté in olive oil over medium heat for five minutes. Then add pressed, crushed, or minced garlic and mix it in, stirring often, for another three to five minutes, depending on the girth of the shafts. Add two or three tablespoons of oyster sauce per pound of asparagus, kill the heat immediately, mix, and serve.

We may never know the true reason why asparagus has become the Mother's Day mascot. But at least, thanks to Miss Manners, there will be fewer utensils to clean at the end of the day.

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