Perhaps the most charming aspect of language is folk etymology in which an unfamiliar word from another language is replaced by one more recognizable to native speakers. The most outstanding example of this process in English is sparrow grass, the old name for asparagus, which took root in the language in Shakespeare’s day and flourished until the reign of Queen Victoria. During that time, calling this vegetable asparagus carried “an air of stiffness and pedantry”, as the vegetable itself still does to this day.
Oh, yes; asparagus has undeniable snob appeal. A certain sign of this is that in the spring, when asparagus spears begin to storm the produce markets, food columnists wax rapturous over ways to ruin the flavor of this delicate vegetable by stir-frying it with peppers in vile olive oil (with garlic, no less), dusting it with every manner of herbs and spices (even curry, for Pete’s sake) or covering it with a sauce that overpowers the vegetable (Salsa? You’ve GOT to be kidding …). Like many spring vegetables including green or “English” peas, few people know what fresh asparagus tastes like, since the spears you get in the markets are invariably days old, and by then the flavor has been lost. People who grew up on a farm will remember how essential it was to pick sweet corn in a short time before cooking because the sugars in the kernels begin to revert to starch immediately after the ears are taken from the stalks. While asparagus has a lower sugar or starch content than both corn and peas, the same process is at work, and nothing can compare to freshly-harvested asparagus prepared for the table.
Alas and alack, asparagus is not widely grown in the South; it is a cool weather vegetable, which means that in the South, particularly the lower South, we do not have the requisite long periods of cold weather needed for the plant. It’s also somewhat fussy, requiring more care than most people are willing to devote to a perennial vegetable that takes up a lot of room and has a very short season. If you’re lucky enough to know someone diligent enough to grow asparagus, more power to you, but most of us have to settle with the stalks in the market. Buy bunches as soon as you see them in the produce section, and you’re lucky if you’ll find them upright in a container with water.
Freshly-picked asparagus is best served simply, with butter or a simple cream sauce. This Florentine is admittedly a stretch, but given that the spears I’m using and likely those you will are well past their salad days–in the most literal sense–I feel justified. A Florentine of any designation includes spinach, but a Florentine sauce can be any number of sauces, usually a simple sauce, but here a Mornay. Trim spears tough ends, boil in lightly-salted water until just tender, drain and cool immediately. Make your sauce with a butter roux, whole cream and a good grated hard, dry cheese, adding a cup of fresh stemmed and chopped spinach lightly cooked in butter. In for a penny, in for a pound, I recommend a thick sauce. Spoon cooled sauce over steamed spears in a lightly buttered oven-proof dish, topping with a bit more grated cheese and broiling until lightly browned and bubbly.