Aaah, Asparagus

haven’t always enjoyed asparagus. Again it comes down to the influences of youth. I seem to recall trying asparagus at a pub counter lunch years ago. It was mushy, yellowing at the tip and tasted aggressive. But not as aggressive as it smelt, afterwards, you know, afterwards. It was an altogether unpleasant experience, and not assisted by the fact that every time I saw asparagus in the shops it was at a top-shelf price. I decided to give it a miss until a few years ago when it was served perfectly cooked at a dinner party. You have to eat whatever is put before you at such shows, don’t you? I ate, enjoyed, commented, and took to the little darlings with a vigour.

That afterwards effect has not changed, but now, thanks to the brilliant book, On Food and Cooking, by Harold McGee, I know the reason why. According to McGee, they have been worrying about it since before Australia was a light in Arthur Phillip’s eye. In 1702 a Frenchman, Dr Louis Lemery, had some things to say about the vegetables in his Treatise on all sorts of foods. Wrote the doc: ‘Sparagrass eaten to excess sharpen the humours and heat a little; and therefore persons of a bilious constitution ought to use them moderately: They cause a filthy and disagreeable smell in the urine as everybody knows.’

Thanks, doc. The culprit, according to McGee, is methyl mercaptan.

So the next time the subject comes up at a toffy dinner party, you can curl your upper lip, as Biggies used to do, and answer loftily: ‘Oh really, old thing, don’t you know methyl mercaptan when you smell it?’

Whoever invented asparagus cookers was a profiteer and, I suppose, a successful one, judging by the fact that they still are produced and they still sell. Who needs one? Forget all thoughts of cookers. All you need is a little salt, a little water and a pot.

juice of 1 lemon

150g butter, cut roughly into cubes


Parmesan, for grating, or your favourite grating cheese

500g asparagus

1 corn cob, the kernels cut from the husk

bunch of tarragon

handful of almonds, broken

black pepper


It all happens so quickly. One minute you are thinking what the hell can I cook, the next you are sitting down to the most perfect meal. Make the sauce first. This is probably my favourite sauce because:

  1. it works;
  2. it is the simplest of simple;
  3. it is suitable for anything from asparagus to sweet corn to John Dory.

All you have to do is heat the lemon juice, toss in the butter, cut roughly into cubes, whisk, add a little salt, and taste. And there you have it. The lemon juice should just come through. You don’t want a pure lemon sauce, and you don’t want a heavy butter sauce. The beauty of all this is you can add or subtract until the sauce is just right. There is only one thing that can go wrong — the juice could be too hot and the butter too soft. If that combination occurs you are almost certain to finish up with pure oil and water. If that happens, you just have to start again. Don’t throw out the failed sauce. Let it settle, and you will have clarified butter to cook with.


Set the butter sauce aside in a warm place.


Bring some salted water to the boil. Toss in the asparagus and the corn, and cook for 5–6 minutes.


When the asparagus and the corn are cooked — the asparagus should take a knife easily — drain, and place the asparagus in a criss-cross pattern on a plate, with the corn dribbled about. Pour the sauce over the top, and sprinkle with the cheese, tarragon, almonds and black pepper. Asparagus like this is terrific with risotto; great with pasta, with more butter in the sauce; and an absolute star with your own freshly baked puff pastry.

If you’ve seen a very pale version of asparagus in a few shops about town, don’t turn white with horror. This is one of those delicacies which Europeans have grown to love and expect with the seasons, and now it’s available in Australia. A few growers are devoting time and energy to growing the white version.

There is, I should point out, nothing different about the species. It is just that the asparagus is not allowed to see the sun. As the spear grows, it is mounded with earth, and thus it misses out on the greenness that comes from exposure to the sun. The flavour that develops in the spears is more intense, more of the real asparagus flavour. Even then, it is rather subtle, and inclined a little to the walnut. I found a batch very juicy, very tender, and served it simply in some melted butter, a handful of torn basil leaves, some lemon juice and plenty of black pepper.

There is one very happy consequence of the white asparagus. It does not leave a signature tune in your urine. The unhappy side is the price. Because of labour it works out at rather more than $20 a kilo, even in season.

WINE: Sauvignon blanc with all its ‘cut grass’ character is a good foil for asparagus. Try a Sancerre or a Pouilly Fume or a New Zealander.