Asparagus Gratin

My memory of asparagus starts in England, when at the age of eight I was given co-management of our vegetable garden and its asparagus bed. I had my own vegetable project in Australia before that, but no asparagus. When I first saw the English bed, it was full of gloriously luxuriant mature asparagus ferns, and I was very disappointed when I was told they were no good to eat. But a year (and many wheelbarrows of muck from our stables) later, we were inundated with those beautiful edible spears.

My mother would not let us eat asparagus except with Jersey butter, sometimes buttered bread crumbs, and occasionally hollandaise. I agree with Ogden Nash about the necessity for hollandaise—“a sauce supreme in many ways”—and my personal preference for both flavor and texture, whether green or white, whether from New Jersey or Long Island, is asparagus so thick that the stems must be peeled in order to cook them at the same rate as the tips.

Please boil the asparagus in lots of salted water—all that steaming, standing upright, tips out of the water business generates uneven cooking and is of dubious value. Cut off the bottom (white) half-inch of each stalk that is dried out, and discard.

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Ingredients

  • 20 large thick (¼ inch) green asparagus
  • 2 cups whipped cream hollandaise
  • 1 tablespoon butter

Method

Peel the asparagus starting at the bottom and peeling upwards—more deeply at the root end (thicker and tougher) and less deeply towards the tip where you can feel the stalk becoming more tender (about one inch below the tips). The asparagus should be the same diameter along the length of its stalk as it is just under the base of the tip.

Preheat the broiler to full heat.

Rinse away any stray peelings, and tie the asparagus with soft white string, wrapping the string around all the spears from the top of the bundle to the bottom. Put in a large pot of boiling salted water (enough to cover them by 6 inches) and simmer for 7 to 10 minutes depending on the thickness of the asparagus, until they are just barely tender when stuck with a paring knife.

Take out the asparagus and drain them on a towel while you cut away the string. When drained, lay the asparagus next to each other with all the tips at one end in lightly-buttered individual gratin dishes, or in one large dish. Spoon the hollandaise over all the asparagus. Put the dish or dishes under the broiler for 2 to 4 minutes until the top of the sauce becomes light golden. Serve immediately.

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