A safe bet
I thought it was over. I really did. After the disappointment of that coconut pie, it would have only been fair. With all the work that thing took – not to mention the woe that came with eating it – I figured I’d more than filled my monthly quota of culinary downers. Unfortunately, I was wrong. It was only the start of what turned out to be a very, very sub-par week. I don’t usually like to air my dirty kitchen laundry around here, but it’s piling up so high and fast that I’ve got nowhere else to put it. It would be comical, if only it weren’t quite so sad. I can hardly even muster the energy to write about it in complete sentences. Witness:
Monday: Made lunch for two friends, one being the co-owner of a favorite local restaurant. Failed to properly puree the carrot soup, leaving it oddly lumpy, like a vegetal oatmeal, and overbaked the lemon cake. Cringed while my companions dutifully ate.
Tuesday: Gave leftovers of aforementioned lemon cake to Brandon for breakfast. Nearly choked him with a dried-out crumb. Had a friend to dinner. Made a rhubarb clafoutis with the texture and appearance of a kitchen sponge. Ate it anyway.
Wednesday: Sought refuge in dinner out with a girlfriend. Got a little weepy.
Thursday: Tried again with my comrades from Monday’s lunch, this time at the restaurant. Had a delicious meal, along with, unfortunately, a glass of prosecco, two types of red wine, and three varieties of dessert wine. Closed the restaurant, danced to Blondie and the Rolling Stones, ate ice cubes in a futile attempt to sober up. Began to suffer.
Friday: Hung over. Managed, with some bad curly endive and Brandon’s help, to make a truly awful salad, something I had previously thought impossible. For dessert, tried a madeleine recipe from a favorite cookbook. Nothing special. Not even worth eating. Let the leftovers sit on the counter and go stale.
Saturday: Went to dinner at the home of a friend. Distracted her so thoroughly with my chatter that her Persian rice, with its many types of expensive fresh herbs, wound up irreparably scorched.
Sunday: Tried a recipe for milk chocolate brownies from a recent issue of Gourmet. Hovered excitedly over the oven, only to find them completely mediocre. Worse than boxed brownie mix, tasting neither of chocolate nor, really, of anything else. Ate two, because I was desperate. Set the rest out for the trash collectors.
See what I mean? So sub-par, and so sad. By the middle of the week, I was sufficiently wigged out that I made Brandon look up the lunar calendar. I was desperate. I’ve never bought into the folklore about full moons – that they bring insanity and crime and disasters and what not – but after last week, I’m not so sure. Monday, it turns out, was a full moon. It would be awfully nice if that explained all this. That way, in the future, at least, I might know when to stay away from the kitchen, if not food as a general category.
But anyway, all this is not to say that there weren’t at least a couple of decent moments in the last seven days. I don’t mean to be a total downer. There were some high points, in fact, and both of them involved asparagus.
This is yet another of those situations when I worry that I’m giving you a recipe that’s entirely too simple and old-hat, but seeing as I love it – and given that it was one of the few good things I got my teeth around last week – I’m going to do it anyway. The inspiration for this dish comes from a classic French preparation: poireaux vinaigrette, an elegant salad-of-sorts composed of cooked leeks and a mustardy dressing, smattered with a hard-boiled egg chopped fine as snow. It’s a dish I first learned from my host mother in Paris, and one that’s made a home on my table in the many years since. Sometimes, in the spring, I like to trade the leeks for asparagus – the fat spears, preferably, blanched to emerald green. That’s what we did this week, in fact, and it was so good that we ate it twice.
To best complement the asparagus, we mixed things up a little, trading my usual dressing for a lemon vinaigrette with a dab of garlic. The key is to serve it all with the spears still warm, when their flavor is mellow and sweet and their flesh still porous to the citrus and oil. It’s the perfect way to send up spring’s newest crop – casual, unfussy, and clean-the-plate good, and with its longtime comrade, the lemon. It’s what we’ll be eating for the next little while around here. Because, you know, no matter what, it’s a safe bet.
I hope this will keep your bellies full for a while, friends, because I’m leaving town for a few weeks. (It has nothing to do with escaping the disasters of last week, I swear. It was in the works long before then.) First, on Wednesday, I’m headed to the IACP conference in Chicago. Then, on Sunday, I’ll catch a plane to Paris with my mom for a pre-wedding mother-daughter bonanza, wherein we eat loads of chocolate and chaussons aux pommes and pâté and cheese, walk until our feet are sore, sit in cafés, visit old friends, say hello to David and Clotilde, and more generally spend some time ensemble before I become a Mrs. in July. I’m so excited, I can hardly sit still.
I’ll be back in three weeks. Until then, I hope you’ll content yourselves with asparagus. It’s not much, but it’s the best I could do.
This dish can be as simple or as frilly as you want it to be. I’ve called below for a hard-boiled egg and lemon zest as garnish, but just as often, we eat it without. In fact, we’re usually pretty low-key about it, eating the asparagus plain, with our fingers, and dipping it in the vinaigrette as we go. Whatever you do, be sure to choose asparagus with plump, firm spears. I like to use somewhat fat ones here, but any will work, so long as they’re flavorful and in season. To prepare them for cooking, trim or snap off their woody ends, and give the spears a quick rinse in cool water.
As for the hard-boiled egg, I have a new favorite method to share. (I can’t remember where I learned it, though – somewhere on the Internet – so if it’s yours, please accept my apologies.) I put the egg in a small saucepan, covered it with cold water, and brought it to a boil over medium-high heat. When it began to boil, I pulled it off the burner, covered it, and let it sit for 12 minutes. Then I rinsed it in plenty of cold water. The white was tender and the yolk bright yellow, with not one single nasty bit of gray in sight.
1 bunch asparagus
2 Tbsp. lemon juice
1 Tbsp. white wine or champagne vinegar
1 Tbsp. Dijon mustard
½ tsp. fine sea salt
5 Tbsp. olive oil
Scant 1/8 tsp. pressed garlic
1 hard-boiled egg, finely chopped (optional)
Zest of half a lemon (optional)
Fill a 12-inch skillet with water to a depth of about 1 inch. Add a good dose of salt, and bring the pan to a boil over high heat. Add the asparagus, spreading them out in a single layer, and cook just until they turn bright green and yield to the tooth, about 1 ½ to 2 minutes. Drain into a colander, and briefly run cool water over the asparagus to stop them from cooking. They should still be warm. Dry them gently on a paper towel, and transfer them to a serving platter. Set aside.
In a small bowl or jar, whisk together the lemon juice, vinegar, mustard, and salt. Add the oil, and whisk well to emulsify. Taste, and if necessary, add a bit more oil. Depending on the flavor of the oil and vinegar you use, you might need a teaspoon or so more oil. Add the garlic, and whisk to combine.
To serve, drizzle the vinaigrette over the asparagus, and top, if you like, with hard-boiled egg. If you choose to use the lemon zest, sprinkle a couple of pinches on top. Alternatively, serve the asparagus plain, with the vinaigrette and other optional toppings on the side, so each eater can dress it to their liking.
Yield: 4 side-dish or starter-size servings, or 2, if you’re us