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Spend 90 minutes basting asparagus? If Alain Passard says so

Russ Parsons
The California Cook
The genius of Alain Passard -- stand-up asparagus

Alain Passard is a genius chef, of that there can be no doubt. But he must also be a genius salesman. How else can I explain why I spent 90 minutes spooning hot butter over asparagus Saturday night?

Passard is the chef at three-star l’Arpege in Paris. He’s also the author of a couple of cookbooks that have been translated into English. But perhaps more to this point, he's the star of a series of utterly inspiring cooking videos on the website of the Parisian newspaper Le Point. I don’t speak French, but I am spellbound by these. 

At their best, Passard explains with an almost childlike enthusiasm how to combine unexpected flavors with simple yet ingenious cooking techniques. 

Cook sliced apples and endive leaves very slowly in butter until they’re golden and cooked through. Top with a little more butter and grate some licorice root over top. Gorgeous.

One of Passard’s best-known -- and simplest -- recipes is one he calls Les Asperges a la Verticale (in English, Stand-Up Asparagus). There are just two ingredients: asparagus and butter. 

You bind the asparagus in a column with kitchen twine, stand it up in a pan in a puddle of hot butter and cook it very, very slowly, spooning the butter over the top, letting it trickle down the spears. For an hour and a half.

I’ve long been fascinated by the recipe, though I’d never gotten around to actually trying it. I was reminded of it last week when Passard posted a video of it.

And then when I picked up a pound of the fabulous jumbo asparagus from Zuckerman Farms at the farmers market Saturday, I knew this was the time.

It’s actually a very simple dish to prepare. The hardest part is probably maintaining the butter at the proper temperature; it should barely bubble around the bases of the asparagus. 

The next hardest part is tying the spears of asparagus so they’ll stand upright, even after they’ve started to soften and slump in cooking. I found making sure they were wrapped from just below the tip to just above the base made this easier.

After that, all it takes is a reliable kitchen timer. Every 20 minutes, you baste the asparagus tips with the hot butter, letting it run down the stems. I found this worked best if I used one hand to both hold the spears upright with tongs and tilt the pan while using the other hand to baste.

Fortunately, I had the Clippers-Spurs Game 7 on my DVR, so I welcomed regular pauses to breathe and baste when the action got too intense.

After an hour and a half, the asparagus was finished. Each spear displayed a full range of doneness. The tips were a brilliant green and so crisp they were barely cooked, the bases caramelized and so soft they were almost melting.

And, of course, they were buttery. Very, very buttery. 

Was it genius? In conception, certainly. It is fascinating to discover the range of flavors and textures possible in a spear of asparagus.

Would I make it again? Maybe, though I have to say I found the dish more interesting than delicious. The middle portions of the asparagus seemed just a tad underdone to me, and the flavor too one-note.

If I do make it again, I’ll probably follow the instructions in the cookbook rather than the video, wrapping the asparagus column in parchment to better channel the butter over all the spears, cooking the middles a little softer and allowing more developed flavors. 

But was it a genius bit of salesmanship? Beyond a doubt.

Are you a food geek? Follow me on Twitter @russ_parsons1

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