Thursday, May 29, 2014

50 Shades of White (Asparagus)

I just got back from a wine pilgrimage to Champagne, Burgundy, and Alsace. After weeks of diligent research in local restaurants featuring regional cuisine, I learned that these three very different areas -- whose wines also differ dramatically -- nonetheless share a gut-bustingly rich eating tradition. Meat monopolized these restaurant menus, appearing in every dish in at least one form, but frequently two or three.  All green salads were systematically loaded with lardons (sauteed nuggets of pork belly similar to bacon), if not also cheese, various regional charcuterie items, and/or foie gras.
Burgundy is known for its Charolais beef and Epoisses cheese.
Regional specialists frequently combine the two to achieve maximal artery blockage.

This was called the salade Sparnacienne -- Epernay-style salad. Fried lardons, fried potatoes, a quarter-pound of goat cheese toasts broiled with honey, and a few pieces of lettuce and tomato (for color).

The only vegetable dishes to be found in most regional restaurants were the aforementioned salads, potatoes, sauerkraut (in Alsace), and the much-beloved white asparagus that was making its annual appearance while I was there.  Seemingly every restaurant I visited offered a form of this ultra-seasonal delicacy as its vegetable offering.

Some preparations were more successful than others.

The oddest version we tried on our first night in Alsace: a gigantic (white) platter of boiled white asparagus -- easily over two pounds' worth -- served with two white ramekins of (white) mayo and off-white, mayo-based mustard sauce, and two different types of sliced hams on a side plate.  This monochromatic mountain of blandness was far more asparagus than any human could eat in a single sitting (though I felt this way frequently in Alsace), and really didn't do any favors for the mild flavored vegetable. Not my favorite preparation. Also not very photogenic.

I loved the version we found at the excellent Brasserie Boulingrin in Reims (Champagne), though.  Here a comparatively stingy serving of asparagus had been cut into bite size pieces and baked inside a small coffee cup as part of an oeuf cocotte.  The asparagus lent its delicate flavor to the cream in which the egg had been baked, adding a lovely fresh counterpoint to the richness.

Eh, oui.

More kudos go to Au Pont du Courbeau in Strasbourg (Alsace), who served a handful of perfectly-cooked spears on top of a French lentil salad with a gorgeous soft boiled egg (oeuf mollet) to provide the sauce. Minced shallots, chives, and a splash of vinaigrette rounded out the seasoning.

Was this an asparagus dish? Or just a vehicle for that mesmerizing egg?

Takeaway lesson: unless you are German (and thus culturally bound to worship the white asparagus as a physical manifestation of the divine), feel free to skip white asparagus dishes that are only about the white asparagus.  In this writer's opinion, the veggie really shines when it's singing backup to more colorful lead vocalists.

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