Saturday, January 11, 2014

Yes! Red wine and asparagus

Perhaps it has something to do with asparagusic acid, which "the body metabolizes into a close chemical relative of the essence of skunk spray called methanethiol" (Harold McGee, On Food and Cooking -- it is this acid and its breakdown that cause the strange odor people notice in their urine after eating asparagus). Or perhaps it has something mysteriously to do with "sulfur volatiles" present in spring's favorite grassy green treat (McGee, again). After all sulfur is a friend of wine. Judicious doses of it, from the vineyard to the bottling line, help keep wine from spoiling.

We muse in this very unscientific fashion because our point today is that a helping of asparagus, skunky and strong, is surprisingly suited to a strong, smoky, lush red wine. If you have seen the vegetable placed at the top of "difficult-to-match" food and wine lists, and have obediently tried restricting it to the recommended company of grassy sauvignon blancs or bubbly-sweet moscatos, throw duty aside. Think anew. Pour a cabernet or a merlot with it. The thicker and more tannic the red, in my experience, the better.

Only alas, wouldn't you know it? -- I am not the first to realize pairing asparagus and red wine can be a good thing. Boo hoo for absolute originality. Brooklyn Wine Guy drank a red with his side-dish "sparrow grass" -- an old-fashioned term, not the Guy's -- a few years ago and found it interesting, Stevie Parle at the Telegraph devised a red wine and garlic sauce to drizzle over it, AllRecipes braised it in a sort of red wine, garlic, and raisin reduction. We will shortly learn that one must not braise asparagus, but AllRecipes had a glimmer. At least red wine in all its novelty was there. Perhaps future historians, when they have a free moment, will kindly note that we all came to these discoveries "working independently." Like Darwin and Wallace. 

But here is part 2. Your pairing of red wine and A. officinalis (the asparagus "from the dispensary") will be of no moment unless you have prepared and cooked the vegetable properly to begin with. (There happen to be over three hundred types of  the plant asparagus, the common houseplant "misleadingly called asparagus fern" being A. sprengeri or A. densiflorus. Don't eat that, please, but if you have ever grown it, you have noticed how remarkably its tiny new spring shoots look like, well, asparagus.) And how does one prepare and cook it properly? How does one become an asparagus snob? Not by any methods the proofs of which we can see in photographs on our fellow red-wine-and-A. discoverers' websites. One glance at those spears shows us that those cooks have not gotten their proper tutelage from the great Madeleine Kamman. Her instructions must be utterly obeyed. I obey them, and I have never tasted any asparagus in any kitchen, whether restaurant, friend's, or family's, better than my own. She speaks, in The New Making of a Cook, p. 374:
To prepare asparagus, bend the stalks head to stem; the stem will break at exactly the place where the fibers stop being edible. Peel -- this is a must or you will lose half the delicacy of the vegetable -- with a potato peeler or a parer from the blossom end down, starting just under the close crop of leaves. Assemble the stalks in bundles of small, medium, or large asparagus.
So the disappointing photographs betray the cooks' ignorance or disregard of Madeleine's rules by repeatedly showing us (1) long, long, unsnapped spears, all (2) fully green with not a peeled, fresh and delicate white surface in sight. Perhaps it's understandable considering A. officinalis' expense. Perhaps even people who might know her instructions balk at the seeming wastefulness they imply. But what of the wastefulness of tough, strong, often crisply undercooked, therefore uneaten or certainly not much enjoyed asparagus? 

For you know you mustn't undercook them. You mustn't overcook them either, à la the horrid luncheon in Little Women when Jo "boiled the asparagus for an hour, and was grieved to find the heads cooked off and the stalks harder than ever." By the way, what on earth are we to think when, later in that chapter, we hear author Louisa May Alcott speak blithely of her heroine's also "forgetting to put the cream in the refrigerator"? The refrigerator -- in 1868? Even briefly consulting a history of the appliance leads us to think that the fictional Marches, for all their yowling about poverty, must have been technologically quite au courant as Amy would say.

Anyway what you must do re: correct asparagus cooking -- after correct prepping -- so that you too have results to be photographed with confidence and eaten with relish, is this: boil the snapped, peeled, and delicate spears, in a pot full of salted water kept at a rolling boil and left uncovered, for 4 to 6 minutes depending on their size. This 6-minute-maximum, rolling-boil rule holds for any young fresh vegetables whose "volatile acids," Madeleine says, must evaporate from the uncovered pot in order to preserve any vegetable's color, taste, and texture. Therefore no braising, in red wine and raisins or otherwise. Vitamin freaks will probably get huffy here, and scold about the evaporating of nutritive value as well. Madeleine knows this and offers a scant paragraph of her own vitamin-preserving cooking methods, but again -- what is the nutritive value of vegetables left uneaten because they are dark, dank, and still half raw?

But who knows? Perhaps there's lots. I am reminded of the ancillary character Isabel Poppit in E. F. Benson's Mapp and Lucia novels, who lives on the sand dunes outside Tilling, "eats raw vegetables out of a wooden bowl, like a dog," and enjoys the rudest of good health. I had forgotten to mention anyway that when shopping for asparagus, you must look for tightly closed, purplish-headed spears; if they are beginning to open out and show weird little knobbly bracts at the top, they are old. Unless maniacally devoted to pure, dog-like cold water, Isabel ("such a Yahoo") would probably pour a claret ....   

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