“Asparagus,” wrote Lettice Bryan with her singular gift for understatement, “is a nice vegetable, and requires equally as much nicety in preparing it.”
Those words, from her landmark 1839 cookbook, The Kentucky Housewife, were penned in the days before our global garden, when winter’s table was dominated by cabbages and dried beans. One of the first edible sprouts to nose its way through the thawing earth after the long, cold winter, asparagus was the very essence of spring, available for only a few precious weeks of the season.
It would never have occurred to Mrs. Bryan to explain that, or to caution that asparagus is only “nice” when it has just been cut from a garden that is merely minutes away from the pot. There was no need to warn against spears that had been shipped across several continents or preach that only locally grown, seasonal asparagus was worth having.
She offered no advice, as most authors do today, for keeping it fresh until it’s used, but simply directed to “Gather them when fully grown but very tender, taking care to have them as near the same size as possible, that they may all get done at the same time” and went right into preparing them for the pot. She also provided just three perfect recipes, knowing that, in this case, discretion was the better part of valor.
Of the three, the loveliest and most sensitive—indeed one of the loveliest recipes in print, then or now, was—
Your asparagus must be young and tender; scrape and wash it neatly, and let it lie for a time in cold water; cut small some of the green tops, and put them also in cold water. Make a broth in the usual manner, of a few pounds of fresh veal or poultry, and a small piece of ham. Cut the stalks of the asparagus into pieces not more than an inch long, and boil them in the broth till tender, seasoning it with salt, pepper, and butter. Mash to a pulp enough of the asparagus to thicken the soup, and let the other remain in pieces. Stir in a little rich sweet cream; just let it come to a boil, and serve it up with toasted bread cut in dice, dispersing over it some sprigs of the green tops.
—Lettice Bryan, The Kentucky Housewife, 1839
Yes, today we can have “fresh” asparagus any time we want, but to have it just minutes from the garden, prepared by the hands of such a cook, is unfortunately rare even in its season.
In translating the recipe for Classical Southern Cooking, I did absolutely nothing but standardize the format, fill in directions that she took for granted, and set proportions for six servings. Everything else is as Mrs. Bryan intended it, right down to the nouvelle-cuisine-sounding raw tip garnish. All it requires is the freshest asparagus you can find.
1 quart of Chicken Broth or Meat Broth made with veal bones (preferably homemade)
2 ounces country ham in one piece
1½ pounds young asparagus
1 tablespoon butter
Salt and whole black pepper in a peppermill
1 cup heavy cream at room temperature
1 cup Buttered Croutons (Recipe follows)
1. Bring the broth and ham to a boil in a large pot over medium heat. Meanwhile, peel the asparagus and drop it briefly into a basin of cold water. Let it soak for half an hour.
2. When the broth begins to boil, take up the asparagus, cut off the pointed tips, and cut the stems crosswise into one-inch long pieces. Roughly chop a dozen or so of the tips and set them aside in a bowl of cold water to cover.
3. Drop the remaining asparagus and the butter into the boiling broth. Let it return to a boil, then cover and lower the heat. Cook at a good simmer until the asparagus is tender, about 5—and no more than 10—minutes. Season it to taste with the salt and pepper.
4. With a slotted spoon, take out about a cup and a half of the greenest stems and tips and put them to the side in a covered bowl. Puree the remainder with the broth by forcing them through a sieve as Mrs. Bryan originally directed, or through a food mill. If you are not that energetic, a stick blender or food processor does this job nearly as well.
5. Return the soup to the pot and heat it through over medium heat. Stir in the reserved cooked asparagus and cream. Simmer until just heated through, stirring well, and turn off the heat.
6. Ladle the soup into individual heated soup plate and garnish with croutons and a sprinkling of the chopped raw tips.
Cut ½-inch thick slices of good, day-old bread (preferably homemade) into small, bite-sized cubes. For every cup of cubed bread, allow 2 tablespoons of butter. Melt the butter over a medium heat in a heavy skillet that will comfortably hold all the bread. Add the bread cubes and quickly toss them to until they are coated. Sauté, tossing frequently, until they are golden brown and crisp.
Another way requiring less attention: preheat the oven to 300° F. Put the butter in a shallow baking pan that will hold all the bread cubes in one layer, and melt it in the oven. Add the bread and toss until it is well coated. Return the pan to the oven and bake, stirring from time to time, until they are lightly browned and crisp, about half an hour. Read More