It was the best of both worlds. Growing up near Paris offered me access to Culture-with-a-capital-C but spending my school vacations at my grandparents’ farm outside of Gourdon gave me more than a passing acquaintance with the pain and pleasure of agriCulture. Raising animals and growing food is hard work but, as an eight-year-old kid from the big city, my tasks were a lot of fun. I helped feed the rabbits and there always was a new fluffle of lapereaux waiting for me; of course, the babies received extra attention. I was less interested in the ducks and chickens but preparing la pâtée was extremely enjoyable: squishing small boiled potatoes between my fingers and mixing the flesh with grains de maïs probably triggered the primal instinct of kneading bread, or maybe it was just the delight of being allowed –even encouraged– to do something messy! I also practiced my sleuthing talents by hunting for hidden nests: Grandma always knew when one of her hens made a habit of jumping over the fence of the poulailler and laid her eggs in a secret location. I spent hours trimming haricots verts, shelling petits pois, peeling pommes de terre. But my favorite vegetable was also the most seasonal and regal one: l’asperge.
My grandfather had set up a couple of banks of asparagus plants along one of his vineyards, the one closest to the house and to his vegetable garden. At that time, I only knew asparagus to be white and spotting them required a good eye; it was a little bit like sleuthing for stray hen nests. Asparagus grows quite fast and you want to harvest them as quickly as possible so they don’t get too fibrous and tough: in season, I would check the banks morning and afternoon. I looked for the purplish-white tips barely emerging out of the mounted dirt; then, I would poke the gouge into the sandy dirt, aiming to section the base of the spear and lift it out in one swift movement. Grandpa had woven a special basket to collect asparagus, a long and shallow one, but still based on the same design as all the wicker baskets he made. Asparagus was the most prized vegetable on the farm, the one that grandma would can and serve on special occasions.
I discovered green asparagus after moving to California. It was a very easy transition. The San Joaquin Valley of California is a top producer: the légume royal is abundant and cheap. The flavor is a bit more herbaceous than the white one but I like that and I love that the stalks do not need to be peeled! I enjoy the versatility of green asparagus: I boil it or steam it, of course, but I also roast the spears with truffle oil, lemon zest and grated parmesan; I use them in stir-fry, risotto, or pasta dishes; they are magnificent with Hollandaise sauce; and when visuals matter, the bright green spears strike a nice contrast on white plates…
Payrignac, “my” little village of 700 souls, is the home of several asparagus growers. As luck would have it, a few of our spring trips back home coincided with the Asparagus Festival. Along with fresh asparagus sales –white and green–, it’s also the sought-after venue for a giant asparagus omelet prepared by the local restaurant: free samples! We won’t be there this year and, as an avid mushroom hunter, I’ll miss the opportunity to forage for wild morels as well: they are a perfect foil for asparagus. Fresh is always best but trust me: of all dried mushrooms, morels are the one that rehydrates the best due to their sponge-like structure. My recipe for Asparagus with Morel Cream combines two of the most special ingredients to usher the Spring season. Enjoy!
Asparagus with Morel Cream
Asperges à la crème de morilles
½ oz dried morels
20 green asparagus
2 shallots, peeled and thinly sliced
2 tbsp butter
1/2 cup whipping cream
Salt and pepper
Soak dried morels in warm water for an hour. Lift the mushrooms out of the water, leaving all grit behind, and drain them on a paper towel. Cook the asparagus in salted boiling water for 7-8 minutes. Transfer them to a pot of ice cold water. When they are cold, drain on paper towels. In a skillet over medium-low heat, melt 1 tbsp of butter; sweat the shallots for a couple of minutes; add the morels and cook 5 minutes. Pour the cream into the pan and reduce until the sauce coats a wooden spoon. Add salt and pepper to taste. Melt the remaining butter in a frying pan and warm up the asparagus. Set 5 asparagus each on 4 warmed plates and top with morels and cream sauce.
Note: this side dish pairs very well with poached eggs, a grilled veal chop or turkey cutlets.
Le lapereau: baby rabbit
La pâtée: a food mixture for farm animals
Le grain de maïs: kernel corn
Le poulailler: chicken coop
Le haricot vert: green bean
Le petit pois: pea
La pomme de terre: potato
L’asperge (f): asparagus
La gouge: a special tool to harvest white asparagus with a long handle and a half tunnel-shaped metal end.
Le légume royal: royal vegetable