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Friday, 17 May 2013

the fortune-telling asparagus (with a bit of béarnaise to boot)

There are some things, like strawberries, that I can't stand the thought of eating out of season. I allow myself the occasional slip up where things like courgette and French beans are concerned, but the idea of eating pale, tasteless Guatemalan strawberries or worse- Peruvian asparagus, in the depths of December, makes me sad.

So, I wait.

I bide my time.

I save myself, just for asparagus.

London friends: this is a farm.

Which is more than I can say for my prom night. So when that happy time of year rolls around (asparagus season, not prom season), I like to indulge in some sense of ceremony. Not of the odd sacrificial variety, or even a party (though I have made a mental note to book tickets to this next year). I just thought I'd pick it myself this May. Asparagus is not a pretty grower, and it makes for a less than artistic set of photographs (though I've tried my best to Instagram-them to death, as you can see). There are plenty of Pick Your Own joints around in this neck of the woods (I'm finding an increasing number of perks to not living in central London- just let me revel in them, please...), but there's also one in Croydon, too. That is, I suppose, technically still London. It's also worth mentioning to Londoners that you probably won't spontaneously combust if you venture outside of the M25 in search of real farms. Give it a try.

The only way I could inject some colour into
a photograph of an otherwise brown asparagus
 field was to wear a pair of ridiculous wellies.
But what to do with your first-of-the-season, freshly picked, still muddy bunch of asparagus? Well, I quickly realised I wasn't going to be able to do a kilo of the stuff justice (it's easy to get carried away when left to your own devices in a field), so after palming two-thirds of it off on my mother and in-laws, I decided I'd stick it with a slab of bloody meat, and a jug of homemade béarnaise.

Any occasional readers of my blog might now have grasped that I don't really 'do' recipes. The idea of having to follow cooking instructions (or any other instructions, for that matter) to the letter makes me want to do something radical to a recipe that could result in a discovery of culinary genius. Or it could just really bugger it up. But you don't know until you try. It probably goes some way to explaining why my own recipes are so frustratingly vague- sorry. Anyway, there are some times where you really do have to put your own inspired whims to one side, and just pay attention. Béarnaise (alongside all other classic, egg or roux-based sauces) is one of those occasions.

I've seen hollandaise (the base recipe for a béarnaise) fiddled about with numerous times. Some variations call for olive oil, others for créme fraíche. Both, in my eyes, are sacrilege. The whole point of a hollandaise is that it's a simple sauce of egg and butter, cut with lemon juice. Start fucking with it, and it stops being hollandaise. So, for a change, it's not my own recipe I'm using, it's Julia Child's. I could have gone down the Escoffier route (a man toted in France as 'the King of chefs, and the chef of Kings,'), but I rather liked the idea of taking heed from some 'crass' Yank who didn't learn to cook until she was 32. Besides which, I own several Julia Child books, and as yet, not one Escoffier one- so not only did this seem like a suitable compromise, it was far easier.

Julia Child's Béarnaise Sauce with One or Two Enlightening (and Superfluous) Comments from Me.

What You Need:

  • 1/8th pint of wine vinegar (or 71ml. Or, even easier, 7 tablespoons). And I used cider vinegar, because it was closer to hand than the white wine vinegar. I told you I was crap at following recipes).
  • 1/8th pint (see above...) of dry white vermouth. You can use dry white wine, but I happened to be making a wet gin martini at the time. Two birds...
  • 1 tbsp chopped shallots (about 2-3 whole ones)
  • 3 tbsp chopped, fresh tarragon- 1 tbsp for the 'essence' part, the rest to be stirred in at the end.
  • 3-4 whole peppercorns, or lashings of freshly ground black pepper.
  • 3 egg yolks from happy chickens. Use the whites to make a gin fizz, or very small meringues.
  • 1oz of cold butter, diced.
  • 4-5oz melted butter.
  • Salt, and more pepper- to taste.
  • Lemon, to taste.

Another photo of eggs. And I have plenty more in stock.

What You Do:

1.Boil your vinegar, shallots, vermouth (or white wine), one third of your tarragon, the peppercorns and a pinch of salt to create the 'essence.' Reduce until it's just over two tablespoons in volume, and then stick it in the fridge to chill it (if, like me, you are incredibly impatient. If you're not, and happy to potter around doing other things while it cools slowly, then please, by all means- do).

2. Beat your egg yolks for a couple of minutes with a handheld whisk until they've thickened slightly. Strain in your cooled vinegar mix (if it's still hot, it will scramble your egg yolks beyond repair) using a sieve and a spatula to force out the liquid, and beat. 

3. Add half of your cold butter cubes, and transfer your mixture into a small, thick bottomed saucepan. Thicken the sauce over an impossibly low heat, whisking gently. Beat in the other half of the cold butter.

4. Do NOT decide that you probably know better than Julia Child, crank the heat up a smidgeon, and allow yourself to be distracted by the cat for five seconds.

Julia Child. With some large poultry.
5. If you do, add a tablespoon or so of cold water, turn the heat down again (to where it should have been),and whisk furiously to try and salvage your béarnaise. Nine times out of ten, this will work- at any stage of the process after the butter cubes have been added. Thank God.

6.Beat in the melted butter, drop by drop. There is a limit to the amount of butter a single egg yolk can physically absorb (Child advises something around the 3oz mark per yolk). If you add too much, your sauce will curdle, so err on the side of caution and do it all very gradually.

Unless your egg yolks are quite sizeable, you're unlikely to need all of your melted butter. But trust your own judgement, and don't forget you can fix your sauce with a little water (or a swift squeeze of lemon juice) if you need to. This is best avoided, as it will thin it out eventually.

This is as photogenic
as it gets.
7. Check your seasoning (feel free to add a small squeeze of lemon juice if the wine isn't quite bringing the acidity you'd like), and stir through your chopped tarragon.

Allow the mixture to cool slightly before you serve it. Hollandaise, béarnaise and other such sauces should be served warm, not hot. If they become overheated, they'll split, thus taking on the appearance of oily, congealed snot. Escoffier will be turning in his grave (though Julia probably won't care much- she seemed a laid back enough character... it's the French you've got to worry about). If you want to make it in advance (and who would blame you? It's terrifying the first time you make it...), then just reheat it very, very gently.

While it's cooling, stick your asparagus on a smoking hot griddle (or under a grill, or even better- on a barbecue), naked, with no adornements. You can start fussing with it later in the season, when you've nearly had your fill of the stuff. Cook until it's charred, but still firm. Throw a well-seasoned, oiled steak into a hot pan. Maybe make some chips- but it's worth planning these in advance. I'd casually committed to Heston's triple cooked-affairs, and then realised there was a three-and-a-half hour cooking time involved. So we got double-and-a-half-cooked chips instead.

And if you don't fancy eating your asparagus? Then just take a leaf out of this lady's book, and learn to predict the future with it. 

Happy fortune telling,

mrs hunt.x