This is spring: a tiny oven bird biddeling along a fallen branch in Thickson's Woods...
...and in my garden, this is spring: the first bumble bee feasting on the early blooming clematis...and...
...out before its leaves, the sweet and edible blossoms of the eastern redbud, a member of the legume or pea family....
...and masses of bleeding hearts, two kinds...pure white, and...
...flirtatious hot pink.
In my kitchen, this is spring: the first bundles of Ontario asparagus...
Ah yes, all very lovely, but what was that about crimes?
Old cookbooks and recipes are fascinating and sometimes fascinatingly scary. Why did everyone boil everything to mush? Even the most delicate of spring greens did not escape the pot of boiling salted water, where it churned for endless minutes and minutes in vegetable agony, its lifeforce bleeding green into the water...
Kate Aitken's Canadian Cook Book (1945) is a mostly charming look back at our culinary beginnings, except for her dieting advice, which is horrid and possibly dangerous - to wit: Breakfast, 3 stewed prunes and black coffee. What she does to asparagus is equally horrifying.
Asparagus is my absolute favourite first green of spring. I refuse to eat it out of season, unless refusing it would be rude...or like, say, um, when I have to write about it and test a recipe...right, so, when it finally arrives in the shops again, I’m famished for it.
The first bunch I buy is blanched and tossed with butter and salt. C’est tout, c’est complet! Bunch Number Two, is blanched, chilled, and slathered in good mayonnaise. (Confession: Bunch Number One and Bunch Number Two will be hoovered on the same day. Phew. It feels good to get that off my chest.)
From Bunch Number Three until the end of asparagus season, the preparations become more and more elaborate, with more additional ingredients: eggs, tossed with cream and pasta, grilled, stuffed into the belly of a whole trout…you name it!
But, back to Aitken’s book…and her crimes against asparagus...
Twenty-five minutes! That’s how long she tells the trusting housewives of 1945 to boil the precious stuff! Now, I should, in the name of research for this blog, try it, but I just can't do it. I won't do it! Can't stand the waste. What I will do, however, is make her Asparagus Casserole. It looks worth a go, especially since she doesn’t dictate a boiling time for the asparagus; she just says to boil “until tender”, which to my teeth, is about one minute, max!
Kate Aitken's Asparagus Casserole
I’m taking some liberties with this recipe and not replicating it exactly. I’m also updating the recipe writing style for younger readers. I’ve included the original here, so you can see where Kate and I have parted ways, but otherwise, I’m staying pretty true! But because Kate was writing for an audience that didn’t need to be spoon fed in the kitchen, she leaves out some important info, such as, pan size. So I’m going to suggest anything in the neighbourhood of 8 x 8, round or square or rectangular will do!
Enough butter to generously grease a casserole dish or other oven-proof pan
2 Tbsp. (30 mL) finely chopped fresh flat leaf or Italian parsley
2 bunches of local asparagus
¼ cup (60 mL) 35% cream; warm
½ cup (125 ml) breadcrumbs
2 free-run eggs; lightly beaten
2 Tbsp. (30 mL) minced red onion
¼ tsp (1 mL) fine sea salt
Pepper and paprika to taste
4 tsp (20 mL) melted butter
Preheat oven to 325F (160C)
Grease the casserole dish with butter, then sprinkle the bottom of the dish with the chopped parsley; set aside.
Rinse asparagus; snap off the toughest part of the bottoms; chop the rest into 1-inch lengths.
Into a saucepan or pot of boiling salted water, add the chopped asparagus and blanch for about 1 - 2 minutes. Drain through a sieve or colander; set aside to cool and drain.
Into a large bowl, add the bread crumbs and hot milk; beat until smooth.
To the crumb mixture, add the lightly beaten eggs, onion, salt and seasonings, butter; stir to combine. Then add the drained asparagus; gently fold into the mixture.
Transfer the asparagus mixture to the prepared casserole dish. Set the casserole dish into a much larger roasting pan and fill with recently boiled water up to the half-way mark on the casserole. Transfer to oven.
Bake until firm to the touch, or for about 1 hour.
When done, retrieve from oven, remove from the water bath, and invert onto a platter to unmould.
Kate suggests serving this with scrambled eggs. That sound fine to me!
Okay, Kate. I've got some issues with this recipe. First, it wouldn't unmould, and I buttered the hell outta that dish!
It tasted fine, but turned out kinda ugly. Also, next time, I'll be upping the egg and cream content and adding some grated cheese.
But, you know, our tastes have changed - a lot - since this book was published, and with a few upgrades and tweaks this recipe could be beautifully updated.
After I cooked this up, Donna Griffith and I had some fun. Here's our homage to Kate Aitken...with Blanche!