Marcel Proust must have been a very hungry man.
After all, if you were to judge by cultural references, you'd guess that Proust lived on nothing but madeleines and lime-flower tea. Day in, and day out, nothing but cups of tea and dainty little cakes. Hardly a satisfying diet.
Fortunately, the cultural references are rather incomplete. Proust ate quite a lot of other foodstuffs, and he wrote about them in great detail in A La Recherche de Temps Perdu. (The madeleine just happened to steal all the limelight.)
Roast chicken. Boeuf en gelee. And asparagus. Lots of asparagus.
"I would stop by the table, where the kitchen-maid had shelled them, to inspect the platoons of peas, drawn up in ranks and numbered, like little green marbles, ready for a game: but what most enraptured me were the asparagus, tinged with ultramarine and pink which shaded off from their heads, finely stippled in mauve and azure, through a series of imperceptible gradations to their white feet - still stained a little by the soil of their garden-bed - with an iridescence that was not of this world."
Proust writes of green asparagus, but it's white asparagus that are arguably more interesting. Unlike, say, red bell peppers and yellow bell peppers, green asparagus and white asparagus aren't different varieties of the same plant. Instead, white asparagus are created by burying the asparagus stalks in soil as they grow. Without light, the asparagus produce no chlorophyll, and thus never take on a green color. White asparagus are sweeter and more tender than green asparagus, and they're quite a delicacy in Germany, where they are known as spargel.
Traditionally, white asparagus are in season from May through June, but hothouse production means that you can have white asparagus all summer long. I know this all too well, because they were a summer special in the Italian restaurant I worked at, and as the lowest-ranking member of the kitchen staff, I had the task of trimming and scraping every crate of asparagus that came through the kitchen. I think I trimmed and scraped my weight in asparagus that summer.
We served the asparagus as a starter, gently cooked in stock and accompanied by either hollandaise sauce or a poached egg sprinkled with flakes of Parmesan. For an extra charge, patrons could also have their asparagus topped with shavings of black truffle.
I never had the chance to try the completed dish (even without the truffles), but I did get to try the asparagus. There would always be a few bruised or broken stalks in each crate, and those would end up poached and sliced into pieces as a snack for the kitchen staff during dinner service. Even without the extras, the asparagus were delicious: very tender, with a sweet, delicate flavor.
So naturally, I jumped at the opportunity when I saw white asparagus at a Haymarket stall on Saturday. The asparagus weren't quite as tender as the ones we served in the restaurant, but they had a lovely mild flavor, and they were delicious with oozy egg yolk and flakes of salty Parmesan.
Sadly, I don't think Proust ever got the chance to try white asparagus with poached egg. If he had, I think the madeleine might not have rated a mention at all.
White Asparagus with Poached Egg and Parmesan
(Serves one as an appetizer or light meal.)
Wash one-third to one-half of a bunch of asparagus, depending on the size, and trim off the bottom inch. If your stalks are thick, use a vegetable peeler to scrape off the outermost layer on the bottom half of the stalks. If they're slender, don't bother - it's more trouble than it's worth.
Put a small pot of chicken or vegetable stock - just large enough to submerge the asparagus - on the stove over high heat, followed by a second small pot of salted water.
When the stock comes to a boil, drop in the asparagus and put the lid on. Cook for eight to twelve minutes, depending on the thickness of the asparagus, until tender and easily pierced with a fork. Remove the asparagus from the pot, and arrange on a plate.
When the asparagus are a minute or two away from being done, bring the pot of salted water to a simmer. Stir the water to form a swirling vortex, and gently crack one egg in. Cook until the white is set but the yolk remains liquid. Remove from the pot with a slotted spoon, and place gently atop the asparagus. Sprinkle with grated Parmesan and a dusting of freshly ground black pepper. Serve immediately.
Note: Ideally, you want to time the asparagus and the poached egg so that the egg is done just after you've plated the asparagus. If that seems too finicky, though, cook the asparagus first and leave it in the poaching liquid until the egg is done.