Simple Things

The first time I saw asparagus growing I couldn’t believe my eyes. My friend Tim and I were touring the kitchen gardens at Monticello and there it was, popping up out of the ground one spear at  a time. I was awestruck. Sometimes the simplest of things can be absolutely astonishing.

Hanging on the wall in the corridor at Château du Fey was, at first glance, what appeared to be a menu from Catherine de Medici. (I later found out it was an Middle Ages inventory list of sorts written by her kitchen manager.) It hung in a small, simple frame just outside the bedroom suite of  Anne Willan and her husband, Mark Cherniavsky. I was in France as a stagiare at Ecole de Cuisine LaVarenne, founded by Anne at the encouragement of Julia Child and named after Francois Pierre LaVarenne. LaVarenne  was the author of Le Cuisinier françois, the founding cookbook of modern French cuisine. I remember the first time I saw the ancient list. It seemed inconceivable that this historical document hung there on the wall just like you or I might hang a family photo. Other than the fact that it was over 500 years old, it was as simple as simple could be, a list of food in the kitchen for the day – a medieval post-it note. Amazing.

This small document was part of their collection of four centuries of cookbooks. Their oldest book dates to 1491. Unbelievable, right? Cookbooks and other how-to books are the most simple of books, instructing us how to manage our daily lives and feed our families. For the most part, they are not great art and few will go down in history as some of mankind’s greatest achievements. Cookbooks are so much part of our daily lives that they are far from sacred — which to my mind is the real and actual reason that they are.

Clearly, cookbooks are very important to Anne and Mark. Their library is truly one of the best-assembled collections in the entire world. While in France, I once worked on an essay on herbs and used a 1633 edition of Gerald’s Herbal, a very important historical book about botany. My access to such an amazing book was astonishing to me as a novice cook and writer. What a gift!

History and Respect

Their collection has resulted in a collaboration by Anne and Mark titled The Cookbook Library: Four Centuries of the Cooks, Writers, and Recipes that Made the Modern Cookbook . It’s a life’s work of such importance and gravitas that anyone that has real interest in food and cooking must read it.

Russ Parsons of the LA Times says, “If you really love cookbooks (or books in general) and you love history, this is a book you have to read.” It’s clear in his glowing review he has a fondness and respect for Anne. Many of those of us that have worked with her share those sentiments. I learned an immense amount working for Anne. I cherish our professional relationship, as well as our personal friendship. Of all the people I have worked for, working with Anne perhaps makes me the proudest. I have huge respect for her and her work. I don’t mean to be disparaging to any other key influencers in my professional life, it’s just that my time in France was life-changing in a very real sense of the phrase.

Recently I attended at a signing for The Cookbook Library. That very afternoon I had attended a talk about monetizing blogging where I realized that I couldn’t worry about what I wasn’t, only what I was, which I wrote about last week. Unknowingly, Anne was part of that realization – it’s more important for me to have her respect than ever compromise my integrity and principles.

Real and Delicious Recipes

I started thumbing through the pages of The Cookbook Library perusing ancient recipes such as Spicy Roast Pork, Quail with Bay Leaf, Apple Dumplings, and Sage Fritters with Saffron. Positioned between the history lessons are very good and delicious recipes, all doable. I am enough of a history and food geek to absolutely love cooking a recipe that’s been made for centuries.

Asparagus caught my eye because it’s asparagus season here in Western Massachusetts. I smiled broadly when I saw it was a recipe from LaVarenne’s Le cuisinier françois.

Many thanks to Anne and Mark for this wonderful book  — and many, many other things.

Bon Appétit, Y’all

Asperges à la Crême
Asparagus in Cream and Herbs
Serves 3 or 4

This is a deliciously decadent dish. I used the bouquet garni method and the flavor and aroma was fantastic — and very, very French.

From François Pierre de la Varenne, Le cuisinier françois (Paris, 1651; recipe from Brussels 1698 edition):

Cut them [the asparagus] very small, leave nothing but the green, sauté them with fresh butter or melted lard, parsley, green onion, or a bouquet of herbs; after that simmer them very gently with crème fraîche, serve if you like with a little nutmeg.

2 pounds (900 g) asparagus
2 tablespoons (30 g) butter or lard
2 to 3 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
2 green onions, sliced, or a bouquet garni of 4 or 5 parsley stems, 4 or 5 sprigs thyme, and 1 bay leaf
Salt and pepper
1 cup (250 ml) crème fraîche
Freshly grated nutmeg (optional)

Cut the green stalks of asparagus on the diagonal into 1-inch (2.5-cm) slices, discarding the tough ends. Melt the butter in a sauté pan or shallow saucepan. Add the asparagus, parsley, and green onions or bouquet garni and season with salt and pepper. Cover the pan and let the asparagus sweat over very low heat in its own juices, stirring oc­casionally, until it is almost tender when pierced with a knife, 8 to 10 minutes.

Add the crème fraîche and leave the asparagus to simmer very gently, uncovered, until just tender, about 5 minutes longer. Do not let too much of the crème fraîche evaporate or the asparagus will scorch. Discard the bouquet garni if using. If you like, sprinkle the asparagus with grated nutmeg. Taste and adjust the seasoning, and serve hot.

Recipe reproduced with permission from University of California Press from The Cookbook Library: Four Centuries of the Cooks, Writers, and Recipes That Made the Modern Cookbook by Anne Willan with Mark Cherniavsky and Kyri Claflin (University of California Press, 2012)

Asparagus Gratin
Serves 4 to 6

This dish with the sauce Mornay is a wonderful dish for a dinner party. It would be wonderful with broiled salmon. You can also make it ahead and broil it at the last minute.

1 cup 2 % milk
1 bay leaf, preferably fresh
6 black peppercorns
1 sprig fresh thyme
1 pound medium asparagus
1/2 cup water
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons all purpose flour
pinch freshly grated nutmeg
3/4 cup grated Gruyère cheese
1 egg yolk, optional
1/2 cup panko (Japanese breadcrumbs)
Coarse salt and freshly ground white pepper

Heat the oven to 350° F. Combine the milk, bay leaf, peppercorns, and thyme in a small saucepan. Bring to a low simmer over medium heat. Once small bubbles appear around the edges of the saucepan, remove from the heat and let the flavors infuse, about 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, trim the tough woody ends from the asparagus. Heat the water over high heat in a medium saucepan. Add asparagus and season with salt and freshly ground white pepper. Cover and cook until just tender and bright green, about 3 minutes. Remove the asparagus to a medium baking dish. Pat dry.

Melt 2 tablespoons of the butter in a small saucepan, whisk in the flour and cook for a minute or two until foaming to make a roux. Strain the steeped milk into the roux and bring to a boil over high heat, whisking constantly until the sauce thickens. Season with freshly grated nutmeg, salt, and freshly ground white pepper. Reduce heat to medium and let simmer for 2 minutes. The sauce should coat the back of a spoon. Remove the sauce from the heat and stir in the cheese until it melts. Place the egg yolk in a small bowl. Spoon over a couple of tablespoons of the sauce into the eggs and stir to combine. (This is called tempering and will help prevent the eggs from cooking in the heat of the sauce.) Return the now-tempered yolk to the larger saucepan of sauce and stir to combine. Taste and adjust for seasoning with salt and pepper. Spoon the sauce over the asparagus in the baking dish. Top sauce with breadcrumbs and bake until the breadcrumbs are pale golden, about 10 minutes.

Light Asparagus Salad with Lemon and Herbs
Serves 4

After the 1st two rather rich recipes I thought I would offer up something more on the lighter side. This salad recipe is fresh and crisp – perfect for summer.

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon sherry wine vinegar
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 1/2 pounds medium asparagus, trimmed and cut into 1-inch pieces
1 bunch thinly baby Vidalia onions or green onions, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 English hothouse cucumber, partially peeled, seeded, and cubed
1/4 cup chopped fresh mixed herbs such as parsley, mint, tarragon, and chervil
Coarse kosher salt and freshly ground white pepper

Whisk together the lemon juice and sherry wine vinegar. Add oil and whisk until combined. Fill large bowl with ice water. Cook asparagus in large pot of boiling salted water until crisp-tender, about 3 minutes.  In the last 30 seconds of cooking, add the green onions. Transfer vegetables to bowl of ice water to cool. Drain well and transfer to a large bowl. Add herbs and dressing; toss to coat. Taste and adjust for seasoning with salt and pepper. Serve immediately.

Anne Willan and Mark Cherniavsky Photo Credit: Patty Williams
Asparagus photos by Virginia Willis

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