Time for the March installment of our monthly series in which we post a recipe from The Virginia House-wife, a recipe book published in 1824 by Mary Randolph, kinswoman to Thomas Jefferson. Leni Sorensen, our African American Research Historian and a culinary historian of national repute, has once again made this month's dish and here we include her notes and pictures.
ASPARAGUS March 2011
First, the recipe from Mary Randolph:
Set a stew pan with plenty of water on the fire, sprinkle a handful of salt in it, let it boil and skim it; then put the asparagus prepared thus: scrape all the stalks till they are perfectly clean, throw them in a pan of cold water as you scrape them; when they are all done, tie them in little bundles, of a quarter of a hundred each, with bass, if you can get it, or tape; cut off the stalks at the bottom that they may be all of a length; when they are tender at the stalk, which will be in from twenty to thirty minutes, they are done enough. Great care must be taken to watch the exact time of their becoming tender; take them just at that instant, and they will have their true flavour and colour; a minute or two more boiling destroys both. While the asparagus is boiling, toast a round of a loaf of bread, about half an inch thick, brown it delicately on both sides; dip it lightly in the liquor the asparagus was boiled in, and lay it in the middle of a dish; pour some melted butter on the toast, and lay the asparagus upon it; let it project beyond the asparagus, that the company may see there is a toast. Do not pour butter over them, but send some in a boat. (Mary Randolph, The Virginia House-Wife, pg 121)
Skimming salted water: salt used to contain many more impurities than we have come to be used to today. When boiled the impurities would rise to the top of the water as a grayish scum which could be skimmed off with a spoon. Bass: a type of African raffia used for tying (as we might use twine) and for brooms. Tape: thin woven cordage (if tied with a bow it could be used over and over in the kitchen)
As you can see from my pictures a quick wash, a steam and a buttering are just about all I do to prepare asparagus. But really my version is just a shorthand version of MR’s. I had three quite small rubber banded bundles of quite thin stalks and I chose to trim them and steam them all at the same time. They were far too skinny to ‘scrape’ or peel.
MR assumed the cook was preparing a great deal of asparagus at one time so the bundle method would help keep the stalks from becoming twisted like pasta during the cooking in all that water. Bundles of twenty-five are impressive! She wanted to make sure the larger and perhaps tougher stalks were clean and scraped to help make sure that all the stalks got tender at the same time. The more mature the asparagus plants the larger the stalks. Asparagus stalks harvested from well established beds are fairly uniformly large and with proper care an asparagus bed might produce for well over twenty years.
My take is that with such a large batch she chose to ‘boil’ the bundles in a large pot of water so there was plenty of room. The bundles could be pulled out by the tie and checked for doneness. And I think the twenty minute cooking time might be what was needed to cooked the tied bundles. It took all of 15 minutes for my steamed version to be ‘just right.’ Her emphasis on watching carefully is the best clue to what she expected her cooks to be expert in – timing and experience.
MR’s presentation of the finished dish is interesting. Come early spring in the Piedmont and the Tidewater, menus in gentry houses would all begin to feature asparagus. Dishes such as MR describes would often be paired within the table setting, set opposite each other at angles, and even at the four corners, for best effect. So when she says the company should be able to see the toast she has a definite visual effect in mind; the bright green asparagus – freed from its tie and laid carefully across the large buttered toast platform.
Also she has envisioned that the kitchen ordinarily contained round bread that could be sliced in such a way to create that delicately browned and buttered stage.