Here's a loose translation/adaptation from French of the article about asparagus that appears in the Larousse Gastronomique (©1996,2007) food and cooking encyclopedia (PDF format). My photos here show the « violette » asparagus variety. The spears are very subtly colored, as you will notice.
Louis XIV loved asparagus, and his gardener supplied him with asparagus spears beginning in January of every year. The sandy soil along the Loire and Cher rivers became choice land for growing asparagus in about 1875, when "claws" (roots) were brought to the area from Argenteuil, a town on the Seine northwest of Paris that has long been known for growing fine asparagus. Asparagus is also grown in the sandy soils of the Landes region (SW France), in Touraine, in Anjou, and in the Nantes area (near the mouth of the Loire).
There are six types of cultivated asparagus, categorized according to color:
- "purple," which used to be grown in the Nice region but now is imported from Italy
- "white" from Touraine, Les Landes, etc.
- "violet" from the same regions as white asparagus
- "false green" from the Languedoc and Toulouse regions
- "green" from the Beauce and Blois regions
Asparagus is a low-calorie food that is rich in fiber, potassium, and vitamin C. It is usually cooked in boiling water or steamed and should be served warm or hot.
How to prepare asparagus for cooking: Cut the spears to a uniform length on a board to keep them from breaking. Peel each spear from top to bottom with a vegetable peeler. [The LG doesn't mention that green spears don't need to be peeled.] Wash quickly in plenty of water. Drain them and tie them into bundles.
How to cook asparagus in water: Cook whole spears in boiling salted water for about 15 minutes, according to size. Then drain them on a towel or on a wire rack. They can also be cooked in a steamer pot. Cook aparagus tips (pointes in French) by cutting them off the whole spears and tying them into bundles. Dice the rest of the spears and cook them in boiling salted water for five minutes. Then add the tips to the pot and cook them another seven or eight minutes. Refresh them in cold water to stop the cooking.
The LG gives half a dozen recipes for asparagus spears and tips:
- Flemish-style asparagus— spears served hot with clarified butter, crumbled hard-boiled egg yolks, and chopped parsley)
- Asparagus au gratin — cooked asparagus arranged in a baking dish, covered with hot Mornay sauce, sprinkled with grated Parmesan, drizzles with melted butter, and cooked under the broiler until golden brown
- Polish-style asparagus — peeled and trimmed asparagus cooked in boiling water, drained, arranged in a buttered baking dish, sprinkled with chopped hard-boiled egg, chopped parsley, buttered bread crumbs
- Asparagus served hot — with clarified butter, lemon butter, hazelnut butter, or with cream, hollandaise, or mousseline sauce
- Asparagus served warm (or cold, but better warm) — with mayonnaise, mustard sauce, tartar sauce, or either plain or flavored vinaigrette
- Asparagus tips with butter and cream — serve them as a side dish, or use them as a garnish for poached, soft-boiled, or scrambled eggs, or for fish dishes, grilled meats, sweetbreads, chicken, or game