Asparagus with sauce maltaise, a hollandaise made with the juice of blood oranges, is an example of one of those combinations, discovered a century or more ago, that are so perfect they need never be changed.
The French revere asparagus far more than we Americans do, and when the short season arrives in the spring, they pay dearly for those glorious fat white spikes, whose flavor and meaty texture put our poor omnipresent stalks to shame. When I worked at Paris’s then-three-star Vivarois, they let me prepare the sauce maltaise, but I was far too inept to be trusted with the asparagus, which were carefully peeled with a knife. (American asparagus stalks have a thinner skin and can be peeled with a vegetable peeler;.) The asparagus were cooked in boiling salted water minutes before the restaurant opened and kept in a warming oven until needed. While this works in a classic French restaurant where everyone arrives at once, don’t try holding cooked asparagus for more than an hour. In fact, it’s best to cook asparagus at the last minute.
The Maltaise sauce is nothing more than a hollandaise in which reduced orange juice infused with some of the zests replaces or augments the lemon juice. I like the acidity the lemon provides. You don’t have to use blood oranges for the juice, although the colorful effect is more dramatic. I never serve asparagus as a side dish. In the spring, when I can find them at the farmers’ market, I search out the thickest, meatiest stalks I can find and serve them as a first course, with the luxurious buttery sauce passed at the table. The asparagus can be peeled earlier the same day and kept in the refrigerator covered with a damp towel.