Flash in the Pan 

Stalking the crème de la crème

Asparagus spears, among the first spring greens, are the perfect shape for packing into jars and pickling. And they look so good that way, with scattered garlic cloves and a dusting of mustard seeds. A spear in a Bloody Mary is a classy touch, and might just be the most notoriety any pickled asparagus could ever hope to claim.

Because one thing’s for certain in my book: Most pickled asparagus won’t win any awards in the flavor department.

I used to pickle asparagus. For a few weeks after pickling, before the brine had saturated, I’ll admit they were a taste sensation. But vinegar tends to overpower the delicate flavor. And after those first weeks went by, the only points left were for style.

Pickled asparagus and I finally parted ways the day I helped a friend clean out his kitchen and acquired two cans of plain asparagus he’d had for years: nothing but water and some chemical preservative.

I opened a can and carefully extracted a spear. In contrast to the virile crisp of a pickled asparagus spear, the canned spears collapsed in my fingers. Instead of that neon-chlorophyll shade of green that shouts life!, the canned asparagus could generously be described as ’70s in color, although puke-green would be closer.

But while pickled asparagus tastes like pickling brine, the canned asparagus was pure flavor. Like a brain in a jar, a world of information lurked in that can. Thirsty for knowledge, I drank the leftover water in it after the spears were gone.

I brought can #2 back to the lab, hoping my research might uncover a practical application to the green flavor mush. Soup, spread, smoothies and baby food all came to mind.

I wrote about asparagus soup last year, baby food sounded gross—and smoothies did, too—but I liked the idea of a spread. Given that I had one can to play with, half the contents of which I was doomed to slurp down upon opening, I needed something concentrated into a small dose that could deliver big asparagus flavor.

The solution was obvious as soon as it occurred to me—although technically it’s an emulsion, not a solution.

“Yes of course,” I muttered. “Mayonnaise.”

At this point, some general remarks about mayonnaise are in order.  I first got into mayo—I call it special crème—while on a no-dairy diet (dairy in this case being defined as the mammary secretions of various farm animals, usually cows). Because I happened to notice that I could substitute mayo for pretty much any cheese application, my dairy-free diet lasted much longer than it might have. Now that my non-dairy diet is over, I still prefer mayo in most cases.

Which isn’t to say that I haven’t evolved. In fact, nowadays, when I say crème, I’m not necessarily even speaking of true mayonnaise (of oil, vinegar, and egg fame). My favorite store-bought crème is currently the eggless Grapeseed Oil Vegennaise (not to be confused with original Vegennaise, which tastes like, if you’ll pardon the expression, Miracle Whip).  My favorite store-bought true mayonnaise, meanwhile, is Mystic Lakes Creamery.

Another favorite in the crème category, of course, would be homemade mayonnaise, of which I’ve written extensively.
And my final favorite crème, not a true mayonnaise, is made from roasted root vegetables blended with olive oil. All of these crèmes, when used responsibly, can greatly enhance your gastronomic experience.

For asparagus mayo, simply add the drained contents of a can of asparagus (or overcooked, not burnt, fresh asparagus) to a blender with a little olive oil and salt. Then, with the blender going, slowly add more oil until it reaches a thick, spreadable consistency. Then add a splash of cider vinegar and blend again. Adjust seasonings, blend again, and that’s it: you’ve made asparagus mayonnaise!

Alternatively, blend the asparagus and the crème of your choice, for even more creamy body.

Of course, the best asparagus mayo takes years of preparation, and now is a great time to begin—by planting asparagus. Buy asparagus crowns at Caras or Marchie’s nurseries (or online), and plant them in a well-drained patch of soil. You’ll have to hold off on picking the shoots this year, while the crown gets established. But come next spring, pick ’em like you stole ’em.

Today, meanwhile, you should be able to find cheap deals on asparagus at the store. And call your favorite restaurant—the good ones will have local Dixon Asparagus on their Mother’s Day menus.

After my asparcrème epiphany, I quit making pickled asparagus with the green spears of springtime. Now I pressure-can them in water, with a pinch of salt, a few whole garlic cloves and a splash of vinegar. (Months later when I make asparcrème, I add the mushy garlics, too.) I pack the spears in sterile jars, pour boiling water over them, assemble lids and rings, and process in a pressure canner at 10 pounds pressure for 30 minutes.

Spread asparcrème on bread, dip your favorite chips, veggies or pickles, fold it into your omelet, drizzle it onto your sizzled meat, or just use your finger, or a straw.
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