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Cooking Off the Cuff: Asparagus. Eggs. Mayonnaise. A Fresh Look at a Classic.

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Edward Schneider
Edward Schneider

Even if it doesn't rank with the season's first shelling peas, the arrival of locally grown asparagus is an event that Jackie and I look forward to every spring. Most years, we eat the first bunch steamed and served at room temperature topped with a simple oil-and-lemon (or vinegar) dressing and chopped hard-cooked (but not too hard-cooked) eggs. That was the plan for 2013 as well but, because we'd just eaten something with a vinaigrette, Jackie proposed using the same ingredients in a different way: The oil and one raw egg yolk would be emulsified into a mayonnaise, and the cooked eggs would be cut into substantial wedges, then folded into the mayo. Call it a variation on the French bistro standby oeufs mayonnaise -- or call it a very moist egg salad. Either way, it would combine two classics: Asparagus with home-made mayonnaise; and asparagus garnished with egg in what traditional French cookbooks call the Polish manner.

I first set a steamer pot of water on to boil for the asparagus, and I put three eggs up to cook: I pierced the round ends with a pushpin (which I keep near the eggs in the fridge, stuck into a cork) and put them into a small saucepan with cold water to cover. I brought it to a slow boil, set a timer for eight minutes, then half a minute later turned off the fire and covered the pan. When the eight minutes were up, I put the eggs into cold water and once they were cool enough to handle cracked the shells all over by tapping and rolling them on the kitchen counter. They then peeled easily.

While the eggs were cooking I made a nice soft mayonnaise using one yolk, half a teaspoon of Dijon-style mustard, a little salt and around 2/3 cup oil. I felt that olive oil would have been too powerful for the fresh-tasting asparagus, so I used a mixture of flavorful toasted walnut oil and neutral grapeseed oil. I finished the dressing with perhaps two teaspoons of lemon juice, tasted it for seasoning and set it aside.

It is worth the effort to peel the nether ends of your asparagus spears, even the thinner ones: Even skinny asparagus can be stringy in places, and the minimal effort of running a potato peeler along each stalk half way down from the tip enables you to eat more of the spear with ease and enhanced pleasure. When I buy farmers' market asparagus, I don't worry about mixing thick spears with thin. It's easy enough to sort them as I peel them, usually into three groups: thick, medium and thin. Group A goes into the steamer first, followed a couple of minutes later by Group B, then, when these are just shy of done, by Group C, which needs only very brief cooking. You want them all on the crisp side of tender -- though nothing is stopping you from cooking them less for a crunchier result (or indeed more if for some reason you like them very soft).

When the eggs had cooled to room temperature, I cut each into eighths, forming wedges, each with its share of soft-but-not-runny yolk; these I folded into the mayonnaise, making sure they were well coated. If I'd had some chives, I'd have snipped some into the mixture. To keep the flavors particularly soft, I didn't use any pepper, though I wouldn't have regretted it if I had.

By now, the asparagus had cooled to tepid as well, so it was time to eat: I salted the spears, placed some on our plates and garnished each serving with egg-mayonnaise mixture and a piece of buttered grilled bread. Second helpings worked the same way.

This was a great success. The egg-salad "sauce" was rich but quite simple in flavor, and the big pieces of egg were a notable improvement over the usual diced or mashed egg -- that's how I'll make regular egg salad in the future too. Serving it by the side of the asparagus gave us lots of options, too: spread some on the bread, take a bite and eat some asparagus; stab some asparagus with a fork and top it with egg; eat just asparagus or just egg, with or without bread.

What a lovely way to greet the spring!

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Asparagus. Eggs. Mayonnaise. A Fresh Look At A Classic.
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