June Freels farmed acres of asparagus at the edge of Butler County where Ohio bumps into Indiana. Just minutes into the rolling countryside west of Oxford, I turned into her long dirt drive and pulled up to the farmhouse. June bounded out the back door and headed for the barn where an old fridge held the day’s picking. “Just had creamed asparagus on toast for lunch,” she chirped as she doled out my ten-pound order. I handed her a twenty, patted the doggie admired the blooming lilac and drove back to town. . .
Creamed asparagus, or asparagus served in a light white sauce was once the most common way to serve the spring bounty. Back then no one roasted, grilled or shaved raw asparagus into salad. It was invariably well cooked and sauced, served on country tables where the green spears were often foraged in spring from fencerows, ditch banks and along train tracks. Restaurants opted for fancier Hollandaise sauce, but our old béchamel (first of the mother sauces) held forth for everyday fare. A little butter, a little flour plus warm milk whisked up in minutes makes a light gravy to bind tender, sweet asparagus. A sprinkle of fresh dill if it’s in the garden, a twist of pepper and a slice of crisp buttered toast make this a comforting vegetarian lunch. Add a welcome boiled egg to lift the humble dish.
The asparagus time of year is here again with abundant bundles on offer in all our Midwestern farmers’ markets. Here near Chicago we often see the purple variety which has become my first choice for flavor. I always opt for the thick stalks which grow from mature roots; they’re the sweetest and most tender. Every now and then it’s fun to fold some fresh asparagus into a white sauce, spoon it over a slice of crusty sour dough toast, and tip a fork into a taste memory worth bringing back.
Creamed Asparagus on Toast
2 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons flour
1 ½ cups milk (warmed in microwave or saucepan)
salt, freshly grated nutmeg and freshly ground pepper
fresh dill or parsley, lemon juice (optional)
1 pound fresh asparagus
2 soft-center hard-boiled eggs
4 slices toast (peasant or sourdough bread if possible)
Melt butter in heavy saucepan. Whisk in flour and stir for a minute to cook the flour. Whisk in hot milk and simmer to form a smooth sauce. Season with salt, pepper and nutmeg. Taste to correct seasoning; add a few drops fresh lemon juice if desired. Set aside.
Bring a pot of water to a rolling boil. Trim any tough ends from the asparagus and diagonally cut into half-inch slices (you should have 4 cups). Salt the boiling water generously and blanch the asparagus for 3-4 minutes or until tender. Make sure to cook it a bit longer than the ‘crisp-tender’ stage. Reserve half a cup of the cooking water and drain the asparagus.
Warm the white sauce and thin it if necessary with some of the cooking water. Add the drained asparagus and heat it through. Fold in a tablespoon of chopped fresh dill or parsley.
Spoon the creamed asparagus over warm, buttered toast and garnish each serving with quarters of boiled egg. Sprinkle with flaky salt, cracked pepper and fresh mint, parsley or chives. Serves 4.