A chilly, transglobal supply chain may enable Peruvian asparagus to be airfreighted, year-round, into the world’s supermarkets—but what is the point of life without something to look forward to? To my mind, British asparagus—limited to a few weeks in May and June—is one of the great seasonal treats. Arnaud Schon, the French chef who cooks for The Economist, harbours even greater animosity against the far-flung South American spear. “No, no, no. Doesn’t have the same taste or quality. Definitely not. You lose the flavour that makes asparagus so distinctive.”
Jane Grigson went further still: “Asparagus needs to be eaten the day it is picked.”
I usually follow Grigson’s suggestion of eating lightly boiled eggs using lukewarm British asparagus spears as the soldiers, and adding a dab of butter to season the eggs. Arnaud, though, puts asparagus in twice-baked soufflés, which he serves as a starter. “Making a soufflé is not as hard as people think. This is a nearly foolproof recipe.”
“Really?” I was puzzled. “But how do you stop the heavy bits of asparagus sinking and gathering at the bottom of the soufflés?”
“Well, the twice-baked soufflé is a bit thicker—more like a muffin—and you bake it in a ramekin. But the main reason is that you make most of the asparagus into a purée. Start by making a thick béchamel roux [or as it’s known in Yorkshire, white sauce]. For eight ramekins, use 50g plain flour, 50g butter and 300ml milk. Melt the butter in a saucepan at gentle heat, then slowly add flour, followed by the milk, and stir constantly until you get a smooth sauce. Put it to one side, while you simmer eight asparagus spears (chop off the woody bit at the end) in salted boiling water for three minutes. Cut off the heads and blend the rest of the spears in a liquidiser, then pass through a sieve to get rid of the fibres. Mix with the béchamel so you’ve got a green paste, and slowly stir in three egg yolks, one at a time.”
Arnaud then whisks the egg whites until they make soft peaks. “Do you do it by hand?” I asked.
“No, I’ve got a machine—but it’s not difficult by hand. Do it in a cold glass bowl. A little salt helps break up the egg white, and the eggs shouldn’t be too fresh or they’ll be harder to beat. Take one-third of the asparagus béchamel and fold it into the white. Mix until it becomes a bit looser, then add the rest, nice and easy. Butter the inside of the ramekins and put a circle of baking parchment at the bottom to stop the mix sticking.”
“How do you get the paper the right size?”
Arnaud gave me a “D’oh!” look. “Draw round the bottom of a ramekin and cut it out. Fold the parchment, and you can do four at the same time. Fill the ramekins with béchamel and add the asparagus tips on top. Put the ramekins in a bain-marie [in Yorkshire: a deep tray containing hot water] and bake for 25 minutes at 200°C. Let them cool for ten minutes in the water, then turn over each one and ease out the soufflé; you may need a knife. Then you can wait for your guests.”
You’d hope Arnaud would always wait for his guests, but in this case he was talking fine-tuning. “Twice-baked soufflés create much less pressure on the chef than a proper soufflé and they’re a lot quicker. Guests here can be a bit impatient, you can’t have them hanging about for ten minutes. When the moment comes for their starter, pour a thin layer of cream into a non-stick tray, add the soufflés and heat at 180°C—the cream creates a bit of steam to help them rise again. Five minutes and they will be ready.”
“They sound a bit plain—don’t they come with anything?”
“I’d serve them with a soubise onion sauce. Chop a sweet onion, sauté a bit but don’t let it colour, then add cream, seasoning, chopped thyme and dill. Blend and pass through a sieve.”
A couple of days later, I made twice-baked soufflés for dinner. Maybe it was a mistake to try at night. As my temper grew shorter (drawing circles on that damned curling baking parchment was a low point) and the pile of washing-up grew ever higher in the sink, I saw yet again the yawning gulf between myself and a professional cook. The result? My wife said the soufflés were “sophisticated, I’d like to have them again” and insisted they were not all that much trouble to make: “You’re just not used to baking parchment.”
We’ve just had the last two soufflés and they were fine after almost a week in the fridge, though the asparagus flavour was a bit subtle for my taste. But then it was still several weeks before the British asparagus season, so I had to break my rule and use Peruvian spears instead. It’s 10,000km from Lima to London—that’s a long way for a soufflé.