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Asparagus like Green Peas

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Delicious 19th century French dish - asparagus served like green peas. This was a favorite of Napoleon's Foreign Minister Talleyrand. Simple, healthy and thoroughly decadent.

Talleyrand (1754-1838) was despised by most of his contemporaries. Having served in turn every of the many political regimes that came upon France in the 19th century, he ended up the richest man in the realm. Most 19th century French politicians ended up in exile in France, Switzerland or Austria or had their neck cut. But Talleyrand died in his bed. He was one of the most brilliant minds of the century and the prince of diplomats.


Portrait of Talleyrand, courtesy of antique-prints.de for FXcuisine.com

American readers not content with the state of their country's military affairs will find much solace in the study of Napoleonic wars. When you visit Paris, the names of the streets and train stations might lead you to think his was a heroic time for France. Austerlitz, Avenue d'Iéna, Avenue de Wagram, Avenue d'Eylau, Avenue de Friedland, Rue d'Ulm, all of them victories. Until you cross the Channel and stroll on Trafalgar square or take a train a Waterloo Station, you might even think this was a pretty successful guy. I mean, they even have this huge Napoleon mausoleum at Les Invalides in Paris. Even Kim Jong Il would have found it a bit too extravagant a tomb for his tastes.


A modest Napoleon by Ingres

Of Napoleon's many failed military adventures, Talleyrand warned him most about his Spanish Campaign. When this turned into an Iraq-style fiasco, Talleyrand derided Napoleon behind his back for the bloody fool he was. Napoleon became increasingly angry at his advisor, calling him once 'shit in silk stockings'. If you want to check how horrible and useless this particular war was, check out Los desastres de la guerra by Fransisco Goya. But, a Napoleonist might say, didn't Napoleon bring democracy and modern laws to other European countries? Didn't he reform the antiquated French weight and measure system? He most certainly did, but Hitler built visionary highways and people still drive his Volkswagens. This doesn't change the fact that Napoleon was a bloodthirsty egomaniac. In France, Talleyrand is the role model of spin doctors and governement advisors, the consumate consigliere who crossed his time like a shiny ghost, never letting anybody get to him and ending up the richest of them all. In the movie Napoleon, Talleyrand is played by John Malkovitch.

I recently had a former French government minister for dinner (Beef Daube) and, after I explained my fondness of food and history, he kindly sent me his copy of Le Souper (The Supper), a French costume piece about a dinner between Talleyrand and Joseph Fouché, Napoleon's sinister interior minister and henchman. The movie's undertitle is French writer Chateaubriand's observation, as he saw these two guys passing him by, that he just witnessed 'Vice at the hand of Crime crossing the street'. As the movie opens, Talleyrand shows what his chef Antonin Carême, the most famous chef of his century, had prepared "Asperges en petits pois, culs d'artichauds à la ravigote, saumon à la Royale, filet de perdrix à la financière.".


Fouché: 'Pss. Asparagus like green peas, that's what you said?'
Talleyrand (while Fouché is tasting it): 'Yeees. A recipe I owe to Mr de Cuçy. You slice the tender part of the asparagus in the shape of green peas, precisely. You wash it, scald it, the put in on the fire with a good piece of butter, a bit of savory, a clove and finally you bind the sauce with cream and an egg yolk. '
Fouché (laughing): 'I'll end up believing my agents who ensure me you spend one hour everyday in your kitchens!'
Talleyrand: 'They mislead you, Monsieur Fouché, I spend two hours every day in my kitchens.' Talleyrand describes his favorite dish, asperges en petits pois or Asparagus like Green Peas: "You take green asparagus, you cut them into tiny slices until the knife starts to feel resistance, then you sauté them in butter and sprinkle with two cloves and a freshly snipped savory. The recipe is also found in Alexandre Dumas Culinary Dictionary as well as Jules Gouffé. Here it is for you:

Two bunches of green asparagus from Italy, a bunch of savory, the old-fashioned herb (satureja montana or hortensis), two cloves on my copper cannelé molds and a fancy Porsche knife.

Cut the asparagus in small segments, starting from the tips.

Proceed 'until the knife feels the first resistance'.

Don't feel bad about discarding half of each asparagus, the farmers include as much of the inedible stalk as they can to increase the weight, but nobody eats the hard, lignified stalk anyway.

Remove the the asparagus 'peas' to a sieve, wash and discard as much of the pieces of skin as you can.

Transfer to a pot...

... and blanch for a few minutes in salted water.

Remove, drain, and briefly cover in cold water to stop the cooking and preserve the asparagus' color.

Meanwhile, snip the savory.

Prepare the sauce by pouring the cream into a bowl...

... then add an egg yolk...

... and some of the savory.

Whisk the yolk in ...

... until you have a smooth mixture.

Ready for the showdown?

Melt a tablespoon butter in a large saucepan.

Add the asparagus 'peas'...

... then the cloves ...

... and some more savory.

A drop of vegetable stock, or plain hot water or even some of the asparaguses' cooking water.

Mix well and when the asparagus are just about done, reduce the heat to the lowest setting.

Add the cream liaison. If you are worried that this might become a dangerous liaison given the raw egg yolk, calm down as we will now warm it up.

Toss, and gradually increase the heat until the sauce thickens as the egg coagulates and the cream's water content evaporates.

The dish will be ready when you can leave a neat trace in the sauce using a paddle. This means the sauce has thickened enough. French chefs say 'la sauce nappe' or 'elle est cuite à la nappe', if that's any help.

Serve immediately.

Variations: I found several recipes in 19th century cookbooks for pigeons on asparagus like peas, probably a substitute for the more chic pigeons on green peas. Some recipes omit the egg yolk, other add a pinch of sugar.


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27 Comments

  • #1
  • Comment by Ben
Hi François, you mention 'savory' as the herb, but I am looking on the internet and various herb directories but cannot find this listed? Is there another name that it may go by?

Thanks
  • #2
  • Answered by fx
Ben, you must use satureja hortensis, or if you can't find it, its rougher country cousin, satureja montana. If you can't find it at your grocer's (I was surprised to find myself!), then you can certainly order online a little plant to grow in a pot.
  • #3
  • Comment by Lori
FYI.
In the USA, Satureja hortensis is called summer savory and satureja montana, winter savory.  It is not a common herb for the grocery store.  I believe I have some growing in my yard.   I am going to go check!  Thank you for this recipe.  
OK, I'm commenting again about the shiny things - do you like your Porsche knife?  I'm in the market for a new chef's knife - I'm intrigued by the Chroma, but it looks like something you'd throw, rather than slice with!
  • #5
  • Answered by fx
Lori, thanks for getting the US name for savory, if you can find it, satureja hortensis has a more delicate taste better suited to this dish. Good luck!
  • #6
  • Answered by fx
Vicki, I just love my Porsche knife, but it's really more about design and durability than anything else. Most cooks use knives with molded plastic handles, they don't look fancy and cost much less. But if you're in the market for a hot-looking, sturdy, sharp knife that has been endorsed by well-funded professional chefs, you can't get wrong with a Porsche. I hope this helps!
  • #7
  • Comment by constantins
UHT cream! Sacrilege!
  • #8
  • Answered by fx
Constantins, I'll buy some artisan creme next time!
  • #9
  • Comment by Stahlregen
fx, it's always fun to see you dig up one of these ancient recipes. Sort of reminds me of the time in 6th grade when we went to the archeological state museum where we had a Roman cooking course... I think I'll need to do some digging at home to see if I still find those recipes somewhere. As for this one, am I correct in assuming it could also be prepared as "actual green peas like green peas"? ;)
  • #10
  • Answered by fx
Stahlregen, I have a whole section in my library about historical recipes, but this one is quite edible for the modern palate compared to most ancient recipes, especially Romans. You could prepare it with green peas but the point, for me, is to try to imitate green peas when they could not be obtained off season, with another vegetable that is usually rather noble and never chopped in tiny bits. I think the recipe shows this in an intriguing way!
  • #11
  • Comment by Deborah
Do you think that french tarragon would be a nice alternative to savory?
  • #12
  • Answered by fx
Deborah, you're damn right that tarragon would be more than an acceptable substitute to savory, which is the old-fashioned cantakerous spinster in the herb garden. No surprise she did not become as famous as the delicate tarragon! But I wanted to share a piece of history and there would have been no point tweaking the recipe. And I found the savory!
  • #13
  • Comment by mattomatic
healthy?? Cream is tasty...but it's not healthy...just tasty...
  • #14
  • Answered by fx
Matt, if there is somewhere in the sky a table listing all the ingredients that are 'healthy', written in letters of fire, then I have not seen it. A dish is a combination of ingredients resulting in something more or less healthy. If you eat your asparagus with only a pinch of salt, this is quite healthy. But if you eat a pound of salt you'll be dead within hours. Adding a little cream to your asparagus does not make the dish unhealthy anymore than adding salt makes it poisonous.
  • #15
  • Comment by Marlene
I'm always looking for unique combinations and am finding myself turning to old cookbooks and history in search of "new" flavor combinations. I thank you for this one!

This is truly a delightful find. I myself in California can not find savory readily available either. I have been growing it for the last year and stock tons of dried as well. I usually pair it with stocks, meats, and as of late even vegetables. So this recipe is indeed very appealing. I shall love to see what else gets dug up!
  • #16
  • Answered by fx
Marlene, you are wise to grow your own savory, it's such fun to use home-grown herbs! I have dug up many other old recipes, but hey, they also need to be edible for present-day diners, that's a different story. Many of these old dishes are really heavy and strong-tasting, using all kinds of strange offal most people have never even heard mentioned once. But I have another asparagus recipe ready for publication, it will come next week, Asparagus à la Pompadour, no less!
I have only just discovered your website and would just like to thank you for this amazing introduction to recipes from times past. The photos are stunning, and the informative way you talk about the dishes makes my mouth water!! :)
  • #18
  • Answered by fx
Aptronym, thanks for visiting! I hope to include more historical recipes in the future.
  • #19
  • Comment by Siobhan
Cant wait to try this recipe, my mouth is watering at just the thought!! Will let you know what my attempt turns up, thanks
such a creative way to use aspgaragus! love it
  • #21
  • Answered by fx
Jaden, thanks for visiting! I hope all is well on your side!
  • #22
  • Comment by Jan
Another very interesting and beautifully photographed recipe!

I have one question - what do you mean with the "cloves" you add? It looks like they are some kind of seeds... For now, I tried making it without and it was quite nice anyway.
  • FX's answer→ Jan, I believe this is the right word in English but may be wrong. What I meant was: Cloves (Syzygium aromaticum, syn. Eugenia aromaticum or Eugenia caryophyllata) are the aromatic dried flower buds of a tree in the family Myrtaceae. Cloves are native to Indonesia and used as a spice in cuisine all over the world. The name derives from French clou, a nail, as the buds vaguely resemble small irregular nails in shape. Cloves are harvested primarily in Indonesia, Madagascar, Zanzibar, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka; it is also grown in India under the name Lavang.

  • #24
  • Comment by Jan
Thanks for your answer, I know what it is now - "kruidnagel" in Dutch (my first language). Nagel = Nail = Clou = Clove...
  • #25
  • Comment by Jean-Claude
The French name for savory is sarriette.
  • #26
  • Comment by Marlene
I love that this recipe is listed because I lost a history cookbook that had it in it and I was with despair as one of my favorite herbs is savory ... yes, I'm an unusual American loving and know herbs as such like lovage. I digress, thank you so much for posting this beloved recipe to me, simple, but lost to time for many. For those of you whom can't find (or don't like) lovage or savory or marjoram even, try fresh lemon thyme. All the herbs work wonderfully, but even better together!
  • #27
  • Comment by Hussein
Great way of preparing asparagus. (Used tarragon instead savory though, which doesn't seem to be that easy to get here in London.) it was a great side to baked trout. Out of interest, what books (beide Dumas) did you see the variations on the dish? Thanks for the recipe.



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