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'Repellently flabby' Spanish asparagus


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A professor of History at Oberlin College describes, in the Travel section of The New York Times, a hike in Extremadura to Yuste, emperor Charles V's last residence, where he died. She writes:

"We spent that night, as Charles did, in the Castle of Oropesa, today a state-run parador. It is a lovely place, with its Renaissance-era courtyard perfectly preserved, its guest rooms comfortably furnished. From its walls we could look back up over the mountains we had just traversed. We took long hot baths, and confounded the waiter in the parador restaurant by leaving the white asparagus (a Spanish delicacy that we both find repellently flabby) on our salads untouched - the equivalent, we deduced from his reaction, of eating only the toast points on a plate of caviar."

This reminds me of a text by another American writer on Rioja or Basque menestra (I can't remember which one it was), describing it as a platter of "overcooked vegetables".

It seems to me that in today's vegetable culture, deeply influenced by 30 years of insistence on 'al dente' textures, some people no longer understand the subtlety of tender vegetables - and white asparagus must be tender and melt in the mouth - and confuse them with those boiled, mushy, overcooked vegetables that graced or disgraced plates of home-cooked food (particularly in the Anglo-Saxon world) in a previous era - or sometimes still appear on those plates today. I think these people are missing some great delicacies...

Victor de la Serna

elmundovino

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Funny, there was an article a few weeks back in the Washington Post food section talking about the new(ish) obsession with crunchiness and the lost art of really cooking vegetables. Some vegetables' flavor and texture really manifests when they are cooked slowly and thoroughly.

Of course most Southern Americans still know how to really slow cook green beans, greens, okra, etc., But there seems to be a prevailing belief in the rest of the US that vegetables are healthier and more flavorful when they are very lightly cooked and "al dente".

I can't imagine white asparagus any other way than how it is cooked in France and Spain--to a buttery and delicate consistency. I love how they are right on the line between liquid and solid. Is there really any other way of cooking them?

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I admire the professor both for her honesty and for her communication of the fact there may be something she's missing. I have at times noted that I've come to enjoy Spanish cooking more and more, but that it's taken time to make certain palate adjustments. Posts in this forum, what I've read elsewhere and the attitudes of the people eating at other table have given me pause to rethink and adjust my palate as much as possible to get the most out of my travel and dining experience. I'm not bragging about my talents, it's just that by dismissing one's own learned preferences and standards, one can add a greater depth to the travel experience. I've learned a lot, slowly and as a result, I "know" a lot less than I did. There's a certain kind of opinionated outlook that's heavy baggage. The professor seems to recognize that.

Robert Buxbaum

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Recent WorldTable posts include: comments about reporting on Michelin stars in The NY Times, the NJ proposal to ban foie gras, Michael Ruhlman's comments in blogs about the NJ proposal and Bill Buford's New Yorker article on the Food Network.

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If I were to puree a white asparagus and mix it with egg and cream, bake and serve it as an "asparagus flan" in a better restaurant to an American foodie, I'll bet I'd get smiles of satisfaction. If I were to serve a white asparagus as offered in Spain, the reaction is likely to be a murmur that it tasteds canned, which it probably was, but that's besides the point.

Robert Buxbaum

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Recent WorldTable posts include: comments about reporting on Michelin stars in The NY Times, the NJ proposal to ban foie gras, Michael Ruhlman's comments in blogs about the NJ proposal and Bill Buford's New Yorker article on the Food Network.

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The trip took place last spring. So obviously she was not only missing the pleasure of fine asparagus, but of fine fresh asparagus. (Not that good canned Spanish asparagus ever taste of "canned", BTW - no metallic or oxidized tinge whatsoever.)

Victor de la Serna

elmundovino

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On my current trip a number of people have discussed the asparagus, wondering why the obsession with white versus green asparagus. They feel the green is more flavorful. The texture hasn´t really been an issue.

I´m bringing back a couple of cans of cojonudos 6/8, although I did see a jar with one tree of an asparagus in it.

John Sconzo, M.D. aka "docsconz"

"Remember that a very good sardine is always preferable to a not that good lobster."

- Ferran Adria on eGullet 12/16/2004.

Docsconz - Musings on Food and Life

Slow Food Saratoga Region - Co-Founder

Twitter - @docsconz

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wondering why the obsession with white versus green asparagus. They feel the green is more flavorful.

I don't know if there an "obsession" anywhere. They are used differently, and each of them has its role. The green ones can be used in more varied ways - we like them fried quite a bit, or in a soufflé, or in a tortilla. They are more strongly flavored, yes - but the subtlety, minerality and complexity of the great white asparagus is unrivaled. Some perfectly-cooked white (or white-and-violet) asparagus with a fine home-made hollandaise or mayonnaise sauce - can this be topped?

Edited by vserna (log)

Victor de la Serna

elmundovino

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the reaction is likely to be a murmur that it tasteds canned, which it probably was, but that's besides the point.

The comment on taste would more likely be triggered by texture and have nothing to do with taste. It's a matter of strong textural association.

Robert Buxbaum

WorldTable

Recent WorldTable posts include: comments about reporting on Michelin stars in The NY Times, the NJ proposal to ban foie gras, Michael Ruhlman's comments in blogs about the NJ proposal and Bill Buford's New Yorker article on the Food Network.

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I don't know if there an "obsession" anywhere. They are used differently, and each of them has its role. The green ones can be used in more varied ways - we like them fried quite a bit, or in a soufflé, or in a tortilla. They are more strongly flavored, yes - but the subtlety, minerality and complexity of the great white asparagus is unrivaled. Some perfectly-cooked white (or white-and-violet) asparagus with a fine home-made hollandaise or mayonnaise sauce - can this be topped?

Of course one of the reasons for this apparent obsession for white asparagus at this time of year is the fact that fresh green asparagus are out of season. Are those canned as well? Ifso, I haven't seen them.

John Sconzo, M.D. aka "docsconz"

"Remember that a very good sardine is always preferable to a not that good lobster."

- Ferran Adria on eGullet 12/16/2004.

Docsconz - Musings on Food and Life

Slow Food Saratoga Region - Co-Founder

Twitter - @docsconz

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i don't know about the rest of you, but it seems to me that the obsession with what one recipe writer used to call "tender-crisp" vegetables is waning. there is a good scientific reason for thoroughly cooking vegetables (though not, perhaps, as thoroughly as they may have been cooked in the past). cooking softens the cell walls, allowing their contents to mingle and creating more complex flavors and aromas. i think the whole thing with crisp vegetables was an overreaction to years of having had bad cooks boil vegetables for hours (though if you've never had green beans boiled with hamhocks for that long, you're in for a treat).

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i don't know about the rest of you, but it seems to me that the obsession with what one recipe writer used to call "tender-crisp" vegetables is waning. there is a good scientific reason for thoroughly cooking vegetables (though not, perhaps, as thoroughly as they may have been cooked in the past). cooking softens the cell walls, allowing their contents to mingle and creating more complex flavors and aromas. i think the whole thing with crisp vegetables was an overreaction to years of having had bad cooks boil vegetables for hours (though if you've never had green beans boiled with hamhocks for that long, you're in for a treat).

It's always a pleasure to see you around this forum, Russ.

Does the contents mingling refer to a vegetable itself or rather among all the vegetables of a given dish? I'm asking this because the key to success for a good menestra, the traditional dish from Navarra where several vegetables are cooked with a light broth to bind them, is to cook them separately to make sure you can cook each type of vegetable to the exact degree of cooking it requires. That's why is so difficult to find a good menestra: it simply takes a lot of work and expertise.

PedroEspinosa (aka pedro)

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thanks pedro, i appreciate it. what i was specifically referring to was the cells in each individual vegetable. different cells contain slightly different chemical combinations (and different parts of the cells, too). cooking softens the cell walls so they combine (and, of course, other things, too, like caramelization, etc.).

your technique for the menestra de navarra sounds the same as mine for ratatouille: cook each vegetable separately to the right point, then cook them together just long enough to meld the different flavors.

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To me the greatest menestra is the Vizcaya version (also done elsewhere, of course), in which each artichoke heart, each cauliflower flowerette is dipped in egg yolk with a little flour, quickly fried separately, then placed in the earthenware 'cazuela' with some broth, a few small dice of Ibérico ham, a couple of hard-boiled eggs cut in half and some asparagus tips and slowly braised together so that the flavors will just combine sufficiently for harmony but each vegetable will still be whole, with its own flavor and aromas within the great 'ensemble'. A grand dish.

Beats ratatouille any day... :raz:

Edited by vserna (log)

Victor de la Serna

elmundovino

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Beats ratatouille any day...  :raz:

No fair. It's got ham. :raz:

Robert Buxbaum

WorldTable

Recent WorldTable posts include: comments about reporting on Michelin stars in The NY Times, the NJ proposal to ban foie gras, Michael Ruhlman's comments in blogs about the NJ proposal and Bill Buford's New Yorker article on the Food Network.

My mailbox is full. You may contact me via worldtable.com.

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Probably the best comment on the "al dente" debate were Adrià's famous paralleliped vegetable gelatins, where the soft texture sent an "overcooked" message while the flavour was intensely fresh and "almost raw", leading those lucky enough to try them to epistemologically separate the (lack of) crunchiness from the taste, provocatively questioning long-established assumptions.

I've often eaten freshly steamed fat, white asparagus and they've never - ever - been crisp. Like "piquillo" peppers, the best expertly cooked and canned varieties are indeed better than the freshly boiled/roasted versions. Definitely another opportunity for much-needed puncturing of the usual prejudices. I'd add anchovies too. I like them very much when they're fresh from the sea and lightly grilled or fried but they're not a patch on the preserved versions.

The article in question seems to me to be gratuitously provocative, i.e. there's nothing to learn from it, apart from the fact that the writer doesn't like "ballsy" white asparagus.

Flabby is good in white asparagus. Their joy comes from the fact that they have practically zero calories and yet taste rich and unctuous. Since I was a boy, it was always the first thing we had when we travelled through Spain. Even in the most modest roadside "tascas", they were always sumptuous asparagus (from a can, of course), simply served with a vinaigrette or delicious fresh mayonnaise. The Spanish very probably invented it (in Mahon) and this was long before the silly salmonella scares which have contributed so generously to the Hellman's empire.

They're at their best, in my opinion, very lightly chilled.

It seems foolhardy to universally apply an "al dente" rule which traditional Italian cooks limit to pasta and rarely extend to vegetables. Really good vegetables not only stand up to a little "overcooking" but have their own charm. Those who mention the old British way with vegetables don't seem to realize that it didn't involve 8 to 10 minutes in barely simmering water but, rather, more like 20 to 25 minutes.

Of vegetables, there's British overcooking and there's European overcooking.

The season for fresh green asparagus may not be long but, by God, do we get sick of the sight of them after the first month or so!

I doubt there are many Spaniards and Portuguese who haven't found themselves reaching for a tin of delicious, reliable, flabby "cojunudos" (or their equally lovely smaller brethren) when the green are still in season...

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Sometimes, I prefer to EVOO-poach some peeled peppers on very low heat for 2 hours. They develop different aromatic profile, as all airy components are gone by then. The texture is out of discussion (though I had varieties with very good resistance to overcooking), but their taste is different fom peppers with a shorter cooking time.

I've done similar things with celery root and vinegar or sour wine to achieve a natural sweet/sour taste.

I believe that to a certain extent, the pure "al dente" style goes back to the 70ies, when cooking of vegetables seemed to be focused on preservance of vitamines and "overcooking" was strictly verboten.

Make it as simple as possible, but not simpler.

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boris, i'm intrigued by your idea. can you give me a little more detail? i do that with end-of-the-summer tomatoes: cut them in half lengthwise, bake them at 300 with some olive oil and garlic for about 3 hours. there does come a time when the flavor profile changes ... in the case of tomatoes i think it's mainly caramelization (the edges begin to brown). they taste like the very best sun-dried tomatoes you've ever had (something i normally loathe).

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Hi Russ, Nice to see you. I have not been on the California board for a long time. Planning a trip to Spain next April so have been enjoying this board a great deal. Never see you at the market anymore?? There will be a new stand soon with processed market foods including some mushroom sauces as well as other things. Sorry to intrude on the asparagus topic. Soft white asparagus is so devine and never tastes canned to me. However here in US I find the local California white to lack the flavor of the European as well as being way, way , overpriced. About 15 Eur. per Kilo. Okra, Leafy greens, eggplant, and stewed greenbeans in olive oil and tomato are just a few excellent "soft" veggies.

David

David West

A.K.A. The Mushroom Man

Founder of http://finepalatefoods.com/

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boris, i'm intrigued by your idea. can you give me a little more detail?

It's simplicistic or outright primitive.

We oven roast and peel red peppers and slice them in to sticks (myabe 1/2 inch in diameter). Then we poach them in mild EVOO (with some garlic and basil or rosemary) very slowly for an extendended time on very low heat. We choose a sauté pan, so there's some "free" juice which gets slightly caramlized over time. From time to time, we add some liquidity (water or a mix of wine and wine) in order to avoid dryness. In the end (after 1-2 hours), we get very "tired", slightly concentrated, caramlized pepper pieces. They make a great color on a plate and have sometimes a really wonderful flavour.

Originally, we started with this way of preparation because so many people have difficulties to digest peppers.

Make it as simple as possible, but not simpler.

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I've learned a lot, slowly and as a result, I "know" a lot less than I did.  - Bux

This site is a gold mine of philosophical education.

Apart from the joy of tapping into another's enthusiasms, it also answers my own unresolved questions.

A couple of years ago I travelled the Camino de Santiago from St. Jean Pied de Port. Somewhere between Puenta de la Reina and Estella I found I was walking past fields of asparagus and started to think about what I might eat at the end of the day – slightly crunchy green stuff, picked just a few hours ago naturally. When I finally reached Estella, the food shops were indeed full of asparagus – all of which was in tins, proudly stacked in the window as the best of local produce.

The restaurant also featured tinned local asparagus. Rather like the New York Times professor, I was horrified at first but was too hungry not to eat everything.

Until I read the views in this thread, it never occurred to me that some people might like their asparagus that way – soft, cooked through and slightly flabby.

Thanks MiguelCardoso and others for a fresh insight on this – although I think the French may dispute the origin of mayonnaise. Their books usually claim it comes from an old French word for the egg yolk – moyenne oeuf being the modern equivalent. But who cares anyway? – the Italians probably have another version.

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This site is a gold mine of philosophical education.

Until I read the views in this thread, it never occurred to me that some people might like their asparagus that way – soft, cooked through and slightly flabby.

I don't mean to fault the Times or the author of "We ... confounded the waiter in the parador restaurant by leaving the white asparagus (a Spanish delicacy that we both find repellently flabby) on our salads untouched - the equivalent, we deduced from his reaction, of eating only the toast points on a plate of caviar." She writes honestly, evocatively and provides enough information to pique the curiosity of those who might care about these things, but I'm glad Victor brought the discussion here. I don't know where else this kind of information is so well expressed and exchanged.

Travel can be educational, but it can often lead to experiences that are more mystifying than enlightening. A lot of people come to food discussion boards looking for a list of the "best" restaurants in order to make their trip a success. Sometimes they want a list of places "where the locals eat." I don't think either of those lists serve as well as discussions such as this one, which enable the reader to walk into any local restaurant and get the most out of what they are prepared to offer.

My signature is too full of official site stuff, otherwise This site is a gold mine of philosophical education might become my signature.

Robert Buxbaum

WorldTable

Recent WorldTable posts include: comments about reporting on Michelin stars in The NY Times, the NJ proposal to ban foie gras, Michael Ruhlman's comments in blogs about the NJ proposal and Bill Buford's New Yorker article on the Food Network.

My mailbox is full. You may contact me via worldtable.com.

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...fresh mayonnaise.  The Spanish very probably invented it (in Mahon)

Actually this seems to be a legend fostered by some misguided Spanish nationalism. The legend is that this sauce was made for the duke of Richelieu (the cardinal's nephew) when he lay siege to Mahón, the main city on Minorca island, back in the 18th century, hence the sometimes-used Spanish word, mahonesa, instead of the usual mayonesa. But the reality is that, 1) the word mayonnaise (probably from the old French verb mayer) already appeared in French texts one century before the Mahón siege, and 2) 250 years ago there were very few olive trees at all on Menorca island, which instead was rich in bovine cattle so that butter was liberally used (Mahón cheese, made with cow's milk, was more appreciated in medieval Italy than Parmigiano!), so I think that the duke would have been more easily served a hollandaise than a mayonnaise!

Victor de la Serna

elmundovino

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It's simplicistic or outright primitive.

We oven roast and peel red peppers and slice them in to sticks (myabe 1/2 inch in diameter). Then we poach them in mild EVOO (with some garlic and basil or rosemary) very slowly for an extendended time on very low heat.  We choose a sauté pan, so there's some "free" juice which gets slightly caramlized over time. From time to time, we add some liquidity (water or a mix of wine and wine) in order to avoid dryness. In the end (after 1-2 hours), we get very "tired", slightly concentrated, caramlized pepper pieces. They make a great color on a plate and have sometimes a really wonderful flavour.

Originally, we started with this way of preparation because so many people have difficulties to digest peppers.

Others sure can confirm or deny this, but isn't this a quite traditional method for cooking red peppers? I would add a previous step to peel them consisting of literally briefly burn their skin on the fire.

PedroEspinosa (aka pedro)

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Actually this seems to be a legend fostered by some misguided Spanish nationalism. The legend is that this sauce was made for the duke of Richelieu (the cardinal's nephew) when he lay siege to Mahón, the main city on Minorca island, back in the 18th century, hence the sometimes-used Spanish word, mahonesa, instead of the usual mayonesa. But the reality is that, 1) the word mayonnaise (probably from the old French verb mayer) already appeared in French texts one century before the Mahón siege, and 2) 250 years ago there were very few olive trees at all on Menorca island, which instead was rich in bovine cattle so that butter was liberally used (Mahón cheese, made with cow's milk, was more appreciated in medieval Italy than Parmigiano!), so I think that the duke would have been more easily served a hollandaise than a mayonnaise!

I was told this very story about the alleged Mahon origens of mayonnaise on my recent culinary trip. It is a good story, but yours rings more true, Victor.

John Sconzo, M.D. aka "docsconz"

"Remember that a very good sardine is always preferable to a not that good lobster."

- Ferran Adria on eGullet 12/16/2004.

Docsconz - Musings on Food and Life

Slow Food Saratoga Region - Co-Founder

Twitter - @docsconz

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