Asparagus Alert

Solving an age-old riddle

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

The world’s oldest surviving cookbook is a collection of Imperial Roman recipes, compiled around the 1st century AD. In the intervening millennia the book, Apicius De Re Coquinaria, has attracted plenty of interest.

In the game of historical recipe reenactment, a single mistranslated word can derail a dish. In Apicius Book III: The Gardener, one particular asparagus recipe hinges on how the word rursum is translated.

Attempts to translate this work have been complicated by the fact that many of the recipes were written in vulgar Latin, an informal version of the language. Rursum is followed by in calidam, which means “in boiling water.”

So, asparagus was cooked rursum/rursus in boiling water, and for centuries nobody knew what that meant. The riddle was finally cracked by Joseph Dommer Vehling in his 1936 translation.

“In this case rursus means backwards, being a contraction,” he wrote. “The word is important enough to be observed.

“Apicius evidently has the right way of cooking the fine asparagus,” he continued. “The stalks, after being peeled and washed, must be bunched together and tied according to sizes, and the bunches must be set into the boiling water ‘backwards,’ that is, they must stand upright with the heads protruding from the water. The heads will be made tender above the water line by rising steam and will be done simultaneously with the harder parts of the stalks.”

Vehling and Apicius acknowledge the culinary riddle that’s wrapped in the botanical enigma that is asparagus—the fact that one end of the shoot needs less cooking than the other. And what Vehling wrote 80 years ago rings just as true today: We overcook the tips.

In my version of Asparagorum Reversum, rather than tie the asparagus with string, I bunch it into a narrow-mouthed pint jar like a bouquet of flowers, and immerse it backward.

You want the boiling water level to be about two inches lower than the top of the jar. And the jar should be filled with a mix of heavy cream and butter, with a clove of garlic, squeeze of lemon, a pinch of nutmeg, and salt.

With this spring recipe, there is no reason to break or trim the ends. It doesn’t really matter how tough they are going in, because they soften plenty as they cook.

When the butt ends are soft enough—about 20 minutes—I cook the tips by covering the pot with a tight lid, checking obsessively until they are perfect.

Alternatively, simply cook the asparagus bouquet until the tips droop over like a fistful of wilted dandelions, and call it good.

Or, give the tips nothing but gentle steam, and eat them warm and raw. The heat is enough to volatilize a range of flavors, and the crunch is still audible. At the other end of the shoot, what had been tough and chewy is now soft, and impregnated with creamy garlic butter. The tips, of course, can be dipped into the jar as well.

It’s fun to mess around with a cooking method that is so old yet so relevant. To realize you may never cook asparagus the same way again is a reminder of just how little people and food have changed over the years.

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