What would you eat for your last supper?
It's not the kind of thing I usually think about, but if forced to sort through my food memories to choose the one I'd want to repeat as I crossed the threshold to eternity, here's what I'd say:
The pleasantest meal I can recall is a softshell crab that I fried in butter and ate by myself on my porch, alone with a bottle of Gewuztraminer, to celebrate my birthday in 2008.
The most profound sensory memory I have of any food is of smelling a black truffle, Tuber melanosporum, the moment it emerged from the ground and I lifted it, caked in dirt, to my nose.
But if there is one meal above all others that captures what I hold dear about food, that embodies the abundance of nature and the grace imparted by good ingredients simply prepared, and that just makes me flat-out happy—it is jumbo asparagus.
At its best, asparagus needs only to be blanched in heavily salted water—like sea water—until transluscent all the way through, then rubbed down with unsalted butter and sprinkled with chervil grown outside my kitchen door.
This it is not a side-dish, so for my last meal there would be nothing else on the table. Not even utensils, because as Miss Manners will tell you, whole asparagus may be eaten with the fingers.
If that ain't Heaven, then tell me what is.
For many eaters—me chief among them—spring means asparagus. Like tomatoes, aspragaus is a food that sane people celebrate when it comes in and miss when it is gone. The very notion of eating imported asparagus in the middle of winter strikes me as the lowest and most pretentious form of faux gourmandise.
This time of the year I eat asparagus by the pound. I'd eat it every day, except that I usually run out first because the only place I buy it is from Zuckerman's at the Santa Monica Farmers Market on Wednesdays and at the Studio City Market on Sundays. (See David Karp's alarming article in the LA Times, 'Hard Times for California Asparagus.')
Contrary to what anybody may have ever told you, fatter is finer when it comes to asparagus. Freshness is the number one priority, but all else being equal, buy the jumbo-est stalks you can find. I'm a big fan of purple asparagus, but I only eat white asparagus in France, where it is like the foie gras of the vegetable world—refined, labor-intensive, artificial, tortured. So French, so delicious.
Among its many virtues, asparagus makes an exceptional pickle that brings together succulence and elegance like nothing else. Here it is preserved with its seasonal companions, tarragon and green (ie, immature) garlic.
ASPARAGUS PICKLED WITH TARRAGON AND GREEN GARLIC
for three pints
3 lbs fat fresh asparagus
1.5 cups white wine vinegar
1.5 cups water
2 tablespoons sugar
2.5 teaspoons salt
PER PINT JAR:
1 clove garlic or 1/4 of a small head of green garlic
3-inch leafy branch of fresh tarragon
1/2 bay leaf
1/2 dried red chili
6 whole black pepper
5 whole coriander seed
2 whole allspice
1 Pare the end of each stalk and peel its base,
Then cut stalks into 4-inch lengths to fit jars.
2 Prep the green garlic: peel away the outermost layer, trim and quarter.
3 Prep the aromatics: add to each prepared jar the appropriate amount of garlic, tarragon and spices.
4 Blanch asparagus in rapidly boiling water for 45 seconds, just long enough to set a bright green color and make the spears pliable.
5 If you're feeling fussy, you might want to "shock" the hot spears in an ice-water bath. Then drain.
6 Pack asparagus into the jars so that you have a snug fit, but don't overcrowd.
7 Make the vinegar syrup by combining vinegar, water, sugar and salt in a saucepan and bring to a boil.
8 Fill each jar with hot vinegar syrup, leaving 1/2 inch headspace. Wipe rims and seal. Process in a boiling-water bath for 10 minutes.
"A pint is a pound, the whole world 'round," is what a participant in last week's class told me. And so it's true: if using wide-mouth pint jars, which I recommend, you'll get about one pint of pickles per pound of asparagus. Yesterday I put up 13 pints.