When did asparagus start to look like it grew up down creek from the leaky nuke plant? Once upon a time all bundles of asparagus resembled packs of Ticonderoga #2’s, except they were green instead of school bus yellow, and tipped with terminal buds instead of pink erasers. And thin. Thinner than pencils. Not these Asparagus with Horseradish Cream, Chervil and Honey. These guys are hefty, but by today’s standards they’re mid-size. Larger examples abound, at least at our local WFM. Blame France–they started it. A handful of Februaries ago, in a more innocent age of asparagus, I was strolling through the open air market near Bastille with a Parisian friend when she paused before a box of giant asparagus, not yet widespread in the US. Gargantuan and lavender. She pincered a particularly fat one with two fingers, cocked an eyebrow upward as she examined it and then said, “C’est genial, ceci.” Nice, this one. Nice embraces a variety of meanings, but for purposes of this post I’m going to take it to mean delicious. After eating some I had to agree and since then, I’ve grown to prefer big asparagus. Once you get past the, uh, big factor there’s more there there, more asparagus flavor. Thin asparagus are the vegetable analog to spare ribs. Crazy delicious, but you need to eat a wheelbarrow of them before you cry, “Enough!” With the new Schwarzenegger stalks the crazy delicious remains, but embodied in fewer stalks to snap and peel (if you’re the snapping-peeling type) and, since asparagus are finger food, sigh, less opportunity to dribble sauce down your front.
Horseradish and cream are made for one another, but since we’ve gone all artisinal and farm-to-table the sauce has changed in a couple of ways these days. Unless you have eastern European Jewish–or Japanese*–antecedents, until recently you were probably making your horseradish cream from horseradish that came in a bottle, preserved with vinegar. When horseradish is grated or chopped, exposing its cut surfaces to air, it produces a compound similar to mustard oil, the source of horseradish’s ka-pow! heat. The compound begins dissipating almost immediately, which is why if you grate a supply of horseradish for home use you generally mix a little vinegar into it. Or buy it bottled, already grated and mixed with vinegar. Vinegared horseradish keeps its heat, at the cost of also adding an array of acidic grace notes–and I say this as someone who enjoys the sinus-scouring properties of wasabi, and both commercial and homemade horseradish with vinegar. Fresh horseradish, by contrast, is a subtler smoother experience. It’s nowhere near as harsh (after a few minutes) as the vinegar mix. You get some of the intense heat but without the acid notes of preserved horseradish. The heat does fade, however, so don’t make this a day ahead and then let it sit in the fridge. This is real cuisine à la minute. Make it and eat it.
Which brings me to my final observation. Spring asparagus provoke a ravening greed like no other. This recipe makes four first-course portions, with a very generous amount of horseradish cream. But we’ve since discovered that people love seeing asparagus as the centerpiece of a weekend lunch and will easily consume a half-pound of asparagus per person. In which case, prepare twice as many asparagus as this recipe calls for. Leave the sauce ingredients the same, just double the asparagus. Take it from me–there is nothing sadder than having lots of horseradish cream–and no more asparagus to swirl in it. Enjoy. Ken
*The Japanese condiment wasabi is traditionally made from the wasabi plant, a root vegetable in the same family, Brassicaceae, as horseradish. But wasabi plants are hard to cultivate and much wasabi, even in Japan, is made from various formulations based on ordinary horseradish and green dye.
Asparagus with Horseradish Cream, Chervil and Honey
- 1 Meyer lemon (or a small regular lemon), scrubbed
- 2 ounces fresh horseradish root, scrubbed
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 1 cup heavy cream
- 1 pound thick asparagus
- 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
- ¼ cup minced shallots
- ¼ cup finely ground toasted breadcrumbs
- ¼ cup chopped chervil + chervil sprigs for garnish
- 1 teaspoon honey
- Using a fine grater, remove the zest from the lemon and set aside. Cut in half and squeeze the juice into a food processor. Add 1 tablespoon water.
- Slice the tough grey outer layer off the horseradish root. Using the finest grating disc of the food processor, grate the peeled horseradish. Exchange the grating blade for the knife blade. Add ¼ teaspoon salt. Cover and process until the horseradish is smooth. You’ll have remove the top and scrape down the sides once or twice. Avert your eyes when you remove the lid as the horseradish fumes can be very strong.
- When the horseradish is as smooth as you can get it, add the heavy cream. Process for 10 seconds and then stop and check the texture. It should be thick and creamy. It will turn into butter very quickly if you let it go too far. Stir in the lemon zest. Taste and season with salt and pepper.
- Hold an asparagus in each hand toward the root end of the stalk. Gently bend until the thick end snaps off at a natural point. You will have a short tough root end in one hand and a longer tender top of the stalk in the other. Discard the tough end or use it for vegetable broth.
- Peel the asparagus up to an inch below the pointed top. Swish them around in tepid water to allow any sand in the tips to fall out. Pat dry.
- Melt the butter in a large sauté pan.
- Add the shallot, cover with a round of parchment paper and cook until tender, about 3 minutes. Add the asparagus and ½ inch of boiling water. Season with salt and pepper. Increase the heat to medium high. Cover with a round of parchment and steam, tossing the pan now and then to move the asparagus around. The asparagus should be tender in about 8 minutes. If there is still water in the pan, remove the parchment and continue cooking until the asparagus start to sizzle. Add the breadcrumbs and the chopped chervil and toss to coat the asparagus. Transfer the asparagus to a platter. Drizzle with honey and garnish with chervil sprigs. Serve immediately, offering horseradish cream on the side.
Jody Notes: Several years ago I found myself between meetings in the Lower East Side of New York and I made my way to a restaurant I had wanted to try, Prune. It was a perfect spring day, the doors of the small European-style restaurant were opened onto the street and the experience was everything I imagined. I ordered a glass of rose champagne and bowl of peas. But not just peas. Peas with butter, horseradish and a tiny piece of honey comb. They were so exquisite! Memories of those peas surfaced as I was thinking ideas about for asparagus. Last week I returned to Prune with Ken, Oliver and Roxanne for my birthday. We had such a good time. Gabrielle Hamilton, the chef and owner, joined us for a bit and we laughed and laughed. And the food was as good as ever.