Stalks of Desire | Verve Magazine
India's premier luxury lifestyle women's magazine
Wine & Dine
October 20, 2008

Stalks of Desire

Text by Vinod Advani. Photographs by Sameer Belvalkar

A far cry from the foie gras of our first in this series, the ingredient this time, is white asparagus. Known for its medicinal properties, this vegetable, often called ‘white gold’ steps into our culinary pan, as Verve witnesses the dishing up of two exotic recipes

The chefs almost got their faces burnt. The tripod beaming the lights almost fell into the boiling wok. And I almost fell from my vantage point from the top of the steps… who believes photo shoots are no fun?

We are at Sanqi. The four-in-one food and wine complex in the recently-opened Four Seasons Hotel is an interior designer’s orgasm. Located on two levels, the steel, wood and glass open space makes a bold design and architectural statement. Inside the spacious minimalist dining area, the large tandoors (the only indication that Indian food is available) to the right and the wok ranges to the left – without any partitions between the kitchens and the diners – make for a dramatic introduction.

Right now the drama unfolding before us is a bit risky. Chef Giancarlo is jousting chef Leong to look at the camera and cook simultaneously. Chef Leong does so whilst unconsciously lifting the wok full of oil and the flames shoot up.

A long exhalation later, I turn my attention to the innocent, harmless vegetable that is responsible for this brouhaha. Asparagus. Not the green variety which is easily available anywhere in the world. But white asparagus, a-k-a ‘white gold’, which makes a brief appearance between May and June in Europe’s gourmet stores and expensive restaurants.

This ‘white gold’ veggie, with the tenderest of tastes and softest of flesh is to be transformed into sumptuous dishes by two chefs hailing from Italy and Malaysia.

In true Italian style, chef Giancarlo Di Francesco cites his mother as his biggest influence. He grew up in Italy’s Abruzzi region, which is known for high quality flour, olive oil and sea food. Sixteen years later, having disarmed discerning diners with his creations in Tokyo, Singapore, Shanghai and Manila, chef Giancarlo finds himself in aamchi Mumbai. He shows me what he has readied for his Duetto di Asparagi. With his Asian experience I’m expecting to see an array of freshly ground spices.

Maybe not. Neatly arranged bowls individually contain the following. Bread crumbs. Bread crumbs? Grated parmesan. Marjoram juliennes. Extra virgin olive oil. Egg yolk. Dijon mustard. Basil and thyme soaking in water. Curry leaves and a thick reddish paste called saba.

Saba? A vinegar substitute, saba is also called vino cotto. Red wine grapes are crushed and the juice is boiled down to a thick liquid and then aged in barrels to be finally sold commercially. The saba that Giancarlo is using has been sent to him by his friends from Abruzzo. Tasting this homemade concoction, redolent of fruit, I can’t wait to see how much it will enhance the final dish.

In a hurry to cook at the age of ten, sous chef Then Kok Leong was born in a small Malaysian village, not far from the burgeoning city of Kuala Lumpur. His grandmother’s quotidian cooking, full of spicy flavours inspired an entire family to become chefs. His three sibling brothers are also chefs, all three in the globe’s far-flung corners. The next time you run into a chef Leong in Paris or New York, you know where they spring from!

Now, chef Leong is getting his timbalo of white asparagus ready. His tray of tricks contains almost similar ingredients to that of chef Giancarlo. But instead of olive oil and candied tomatoes, I see dried seaweed and fried glass noodles to be used as garnish.

The camera keeps clicking. Our two maestros start cooking their creations. Chef Giancarlo’s asparagus juliennes are dunked in the saba, crumb coated and then tossed into the fry pan. I wonder if he will bring in the expected hollandaise sauce or melted butter at some point. Chef Leong meanwhile has tossed his asparagus and removed the chunks in the blink of an eye. I expect his dish to be done Cantonese style, stir fried and wrapped in bacon.

Ten minutes later, both dishes are on my tasting table. With Giancarlo’s duetto, I drink a Donnhoff Riesling, its fruity flavours complementing the crispy asparagus carpaccio. With Leong’s timbalo, I drink a red from Abruzzo, the Montelpulciano which flirts well with the curried asparagus resting on the brown rice. Neither of the creations are what I expected them to be. It is amazing how these two creative chefs who have conjured up imaginative dishes out of this expensive vegetable which most people around the world eat steamed or boiled.

Gratinated Asparagus Tips and Macco
Green asparagus, 8 no.; Fresh ricotta, 20 gm; Salt, 3 gm; Pepper 3 gm; Wild fennel herb; Parmesan, 20 gm; Extra virgin olive oil, 5 gm; Balsamic Reduction, Candied tomato; Dill, 1 gm.

Boil the asparagus in salted water.  Chop off the tips (approximately 3 cm) and pepper, grated parmesan and extra virgin olive oil.  Gratinate in oven for approximately five minutes at 180 degrees C.

For the macco
Blend the rest of the asparagus, add the ricotta, wild fennel herb, salt and pepper.

White Asparagus
Asparagus has been prized as an epicurean delight and for its medicinal properties for almost 2000 years. It was thought to be cultivated in ancient Egypt with varieties discovered in northern and southern Africa. Falling into relative obscurity in the Middle Ages, asparagus was popularised in the 18th century by King Louis XIV of France. Today, asparagus is cultivated in most subtropical and temperate parts of the world with the majority of commercially available asparagus grown in United States, Mexico, Peru, France, Spain and other Mediterranean countries.

Asparagus, its fleshy spears topped with bud-like compact heads, is often thought of as a luxury vegetable, appreciated for its succulent taste and tender texture. It is harvested in spring when it is six to eight inches tall. While the most common variety of asparagus is green in colour, two other edible varieties are available. White asparagus, with its more delicate flavour and tender texture, is grown underground to inhibit its development of chlorophyll content, therefore creating its distinctive white colouring. It is generally found canned, although you may find it fresh in some select gourmet shops, and it is generally more expensive than the green variety since its production is more labour intensive. The other edible variety of asparagus is purple in colour. It is much smaller than the green or white variety and features a fruitier flavour.

Asparagus is low in calories, contains no fat or cholesterol, and is very low in sodium. It is a good source of folic acid, potassium, dietary fibre, and rutin. The amino acid asparagine gets its name from asparagus, the asparagus plant being rich in this compound. Asparagus is also an excellent source of vitamin K, the B vitamin folate, vitamin C, and vitamin A.

Wok Fried White Asparagus
White asparagus, 30 gm; Salt, 3 gm; Sugar, 2 gm; Oil, 5 gm; Water (for rice), 50 gm; Rice, 30 gm; Soy sauce, 5 gm; Honey, 10 gm; Dry seaweed, 1 gm; Deep fried glass noodles, 1 gm.

Steam jasmine rice for 30 minutes. Cut asparagus and wok fry with rice adding oil, salt, sugar and soy sauce. Stir fry dry seaweed and glass noodles to add for garnishing.

Stir fry (complete) asparagus with sugar and salt. Take only egg white and stir fry for 2 minutes. Remove and place stir fried asparagus on top. Glaze with gravy.

For the gravy
Boil 100 gm of water with salt and honey.

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