I don’t think of myself as an envious person. but about a month ago I turned green when my Paris friends started posting pictures of start-of-the-season asparagus. You can keep the diamonds and pearls. I’ll take the asparagus, thank you. Part of the reason I want them is their flavor, of course, but in large measure it’s spring that I’m after. People say that robins are the harbinger of spring, but really, robins are the bringers of false hope. They turn up and just about trill, “Curb your expectations – you could get a bunch of cold snaps before you even see the tip of a crocus.” It's asparagus that are the bearers of truth – see them and you know it’s spring. And me? I’m ready for spring. Bet you are, too.
Since I live in New England (our planting zone is 6), my asparagus plants won’t be doing anything for a while and so I really didn’t expect to be making anything with asparagus for a few weeks. But the other day I walked into Bishop’s Orchards, a local farm market, and the first thing I saw were asparagus! Almost a field of them. I knew they weren’t local. I knew they wouldn’t bring warmer days, green grass or leafy trees. But I was fine with that because they brought joy. And a terrific quiche.
A WORD ON QUICHE
According to one of my favorite books, Let’s Eat France, by Francois-Régis Gaudry and Friends, the quiche dates back to the 18th century, when a batter of eggs, cream and butter was poured over stale bread and baked. It was later that the mixture was baked in a crust. And although this would startle most people who know of the bitter wars between France and its neighbor, now Germany, Gaudry writes that we’ve got quiche, “thanks to the Prussians.”
As he explains it, the primordial quiche was created in the French region of Lorraine, on the country’s eastern border. It might have remained a local treasure had the Prussians not annexed Alsace, right next to Lorraine. Fearing the occupation, many people from Lorraine fled to other parts of France and brought the recipe for their quiche with them. You can find quiche Lorraine anywhere in France and pretty much anywhere in America – Julia Child had a Quiche Lorraine recipe in Mastering the Art of French Cooking (1961) and “performed” it on her tv show, The French Chef. Gaudry’s an opinionated guy – I love that about him – and he’s firm on what a quiche Lorraine can and cannot have.
Since he’s French and I’m not, I won’t argue his points, but I do think it’s nice to prebake the crust if you’ve got the time – it’s an easy way to avoid the dread “soggy bottom” (hat tip to The Great British Baking Show for giving us such a cute way to talk about a pasty, cardboardish bottom).
A WORD ON ASPARAGUS
Given the choice, I’ll always grab fat asparagus spears. I think the skinnies, often called pencil asparagus, look stylish, but I think the chubbies give you literally more to chew on: more chew = more flavor. A little more work too – thicker spears need to be peeled. Leave a band unpeeled below the asparagus tip and then, using a vegetable peeler, remove the peel down to the base, taking care to scrape away just the skin, not the delicious stalk. Tip: the easiest way to peel asparagus and to avoid having them break is to lay them down flat on a cutting board. Save the shavings and toss them into a vegetable broth (or stir fry them).
No matter how thick – or thin – your spears, you need to cut away the woody base. You can snap off the base – if you bend the spear, it usually breaks at just the right spot. Snapping is easy, but cutting the base looks better. Your choice.
If you’re not going to use your asparagus as soon as you get them home, put them in tall glass with an inch or two of water, cover the glass with a plastic bag and stow them in the fridge. Alternatively, you can wrap the bottom of the bunch in a wet paper towel and refrigerate the set-up in a plastic bag. Or you can put them in a pretty container with some water and let them briefly double as decoration until you need them. (Goblets by my friend Hayne Bayless of Sideways Studio.)
A WORD ON THIS TERRIFIC ASPARAGUS QUICHE
When I decided to add sour cream to the filling and to drop in pieces of fresh lemon, I gave myself a pat on the back and hoped someone would jump in to crown me with a magician’s cap. The combo seemed like sleight of hand. I know it seems impossible, but even though this quiche is rich with eggs and cream, it borders on sprightly. There’s a lot you can do to play with this quiche – take a look at the points under “Good To Know Before You Start” for just a couple of ideas.
It’s Easter weekend. It’s the start of Passover. It’s spring. Rejoice!
p.s. As always, I’d love to know what you did. Bake and tell. Please.
Makes 6 servings
GOOD TO KNOW BEFORE YOU START
The pan: You can make this in a 9-inch pie plate, a fluted porcelain dish that used to be known as a quiche pan (what’s it called now?) or in a metal fluted tart pan with a removable base.
The crust: I like a homemade tart dough, aka pâte brisée or short crust, for this. However, even though Monsieur Gaudry said that puff pastry would be a “mistake” for a quiche and that a store bought crust would be a “sacrilege," you won’t get scolded by me if you use either. Also, while I’m being contrary – I like to pre-bake the crust (see above), while Gaudry says, “bake the entire quiche all at once.” I’m speaking from preference and he’s speaking from tradition, and when I think about it, most of the quiches I’ve had in France have been baked “all at once.” It’s certainly faster.
The asparagus: As I said, I like thick asparagus, but the quiche will work with spears of any thickness. If you’ve got hefty spears, halve them; if you’ve got skinny ones, leave them as is – I’d hate for you to miss this quiche because you couldn’t find asparagus that were “just so.”
The herbs: I like to go heavy on the herbs here – I think they make this spring dish taste even more like spring. I love chives in general and specifically with anything creamy and lemony. And I love licorice-leaning tarragon with asparagus, but you might not. Use what you like and what you’ve got. If what you’ve got is garden-variety parsley, chop and go – it’ll be great.
One 9- to 9 1⁄2-inch tart shell, homemade or store bought (see above), partially baked and cooled
6 stalks asparagus (see above), trimmed
1 1⁄2 teaspoons unsalted butter
2 small shallots or 1 small onion, finely minced
Fine sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
One 1⁄4-inch-thick slice lemon (including rind), cut into slivers
2 large eggs
1⁄2 cup (120 ml) heavy cream
1⁄3 cup (80 ml) sour cream
1⁄4 cup (10 grams) minced mixed fresh herbs (see above)
2 tablespoons finely grated Parmesan (optional)
Olive oil for brushing (optional)
Center a rack in the oven and preheat it to 400 degrees F. Place the tart pan on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper or a baking mat.
Bring a large skillet of salted water to a boil. Drop in the asparagus and blanch for 3 minutes – blanch for just 90 seconds if you’ve got pencil asparagus (the asparagus shouldn’t be completely cooked), then drain in a colander, run under cold water and pat dry.
Cut off the asparagus tips—make them about 3 inches long. If your asparagus are thick, slice them lengthwise in half. Cut the remaining stalks on the bias into slices about 1⁄4 to 1⁄2 inch wide. Wipe out the skillet.
Put the skillet over medium heat and add the butter. When it’s melted, toss in the shallots or onion and cook, stirring, just until softened, about 3 minutes. Season with salt and pepper and scrape into the crust, spreading them evenly. Scatter over the lemon and sliced asparagus stalks.
Whisk the eggs, cream, sour cream and herbs together in a bowl just until blended. Season with salt (about 1⁄4 teaspoon) and pepper, then pour the mixture into the crust. Arrange the asparagus tips (cut side down if you’ve halved them) in any way you’d like on top of the filling.
Bake the quiche for 25 to 30 minutes, sprinkling on the Parm, if using, after it has been in the oven for 20 minutes. The quiche is done when the custard is set—a tester will come out clean—and puffed. Transfer to a rack and, if you like, brush some olive oil over the top, using only enough to give it a gloss.
Serve the quiche when it’s just warm or has come to room temperature.
STORING: The quiche is at its peak the day it is made—best within a few hours of being baked. If you’ve got leftovers, refrigerate them and have them as a snack the next day.
PLAYING AROUND: The custard – and the sliced lemon – work well with other vegetables. Try the quiche with green peas – if they’re fresh, blanch them for a couple of minutes; if they’re frozen, thaw and pat dry. You can even add peas to the asparagus - do that and mint would be a good choice for the herb. Greens are great with this filling – cook ribbons of spinach or shard or even cabbage with the onions.