We had house guests this past week. This means that I hosted. What that means, I'm only just beginning to figure out.
This isn't our first go-round with hosting, not even close. We've been bowled over, these past two years, by family and friends' willingness to make the trek. But up until Ohio I never had need to host, since everyone I knew lived within an hour's drive. Terribly convenient, this. But a little ignorant-making, also, at least when it comes to knowing how to welcome travelers.
I am vaguely aware that there's an entire art to this whole hosting business, although I only have two firm ideas about what exactly this entails. I know, after years of IKEA catalog perusing, that I'm duty-bound to offer up a heap of fresh $2.49 slippers. I know also, based on some 2004 Marth Stewart spread, that I ought to rise with the chickens and squeeze 17 grapefruits into submission. I didn't do either. But at least I know where and how I erred.
I'm too new at this house-guest-having business to nail the details, so I think about basics and do what I can. Mostly, that means I supply the necessities—clean towels, abundant Jeni's, a complimentary 7 a.m. buffalo stampede child-led wake-up call—figuring if I can't quite manage gracious, I can at least hope for memorable. And meet guest requests, as they arise.
As for that first box, I have it easy, since the company in question checks it themselves. I know from past trips that Annette and Joanne typically arrive with more memorable than jeans, t-shirts and toiletries, combined. Before they even crossed our threshold this time, they unpacked incredible tales of travel gone awry. Of late departures and missed connections and projected 9 p.m. arrivals, that wound up ending in a.m., in Cleveland.
We don't live in Cleveland.
Tack on a three hour middle-of-the-night drive through split pea fog and, I quote, "waterfalls", and, at long last, a 4 a.m. arrival. I'm inclined to believe they missed their plane on purpose. They are good that way, going all out for a story, appreciating the power of a grand entrance. I guess I'll never know, but I wouldn't put it past them. (You better believe I was up and waiting.)
And that was only just the beginning.
I won't bore you with the details, but I will pass on a few house-guest-vetting suggestions I've gleaned from this most recent experience. First, anyone who arrives bearing excellent micro-roasted coffee is automatically admitted, no questions asked. Second, throw your doors open wide for anyone with a bottomless Bananagrams appetite. Bonus pillows to those who share 2-letter word lists. (You, too, can use qi, aa, and za!) Always screen guests for flexibility in case you must abandon them on day one to repair a broken phone, say, or re-neg on much-ballyhooed squirt gun battles and barbecues. (I maintain weather management is beyond the hostess' job description. Who knew it would go from mid-eighties to mid-forties? Mid-forties and raining? The peonies and iris pretty much tell all.) Also, give special preference to people who leave your kidlets in stitches (in their sides, not their heads) and can dispatch them to bed with giggles and speed.
And while I cetainly don't require it, I will confirm that a carry-on full of kitsch is a wonderful thing. Temporary tattoos and lunch bugs and ABC magnets (the Already Been Chewed gum variety, not the Spell DOG, sweetie! classics). Foamy things, growing things, flying things with wings. Hysterical, awful zombies with pop-out brains. Plants vs. Zombies, a new hit around here. Tours of the world's first zombie-proof house. A heart to accompany our zombie brain jello mold. (We added worms this time, a rousing success. Not so gracious. Definitely memorable.) It wasn't until Henry chose Zombunny as his next monster that I realized Zombies had been quite the theme. This is what you stand to gain from great house guests: expanded horizons, in the most dubious of directions.
You would think, under the circumstances, all those guts busted, all those miles traveled, that I could at least answer a simple recipe request. You would be wrong.
I don't cook much when we have company, as I rather prefer to chit-chat and play. We did, however, manage breakfast that first bleary-eyed morning, an ad hoc affair that included ricotta pancakes. We were out of the buttermilk that our go-to calls for, so we defaulted to our runner-up, a rather misleading rank for a food I call 'cloud cakes'. Not that any of this matters, since we're talking asparagus.
I'll get around to those pancakes, Annette, really, someday. But, see, ricotta's good the year-round. Asparagus, on the other hand, is here, now, briefly, as fleeting as that construction sign, below. It popped up across the street the morning after you left town, and I'm hoping it will tide you over until pancake season returns. For what it's worth, I had to act fast and log a tardy; the text reverted to road closure blather within the hour. Timing is everything, with zombie zones and asparagus. Not so much with hollandaise, but I'm jumping ahead.
We've been eating asparagus every way imaginable, since the season started a few weeks back. I've diced it into soups, minestrone, avgolomeno, and tucked it into woks full of fried rice and gingered pork. I've braised handfuls in miso-butter and grilled inch-thick spears alongside bratwursts and roasted more pounds than I care to count. (I wasn't kidding when I said I intended to eat it daily.) But of all the ways that I love asparagus, the one that skips my heart a beat is simply steamed, with hollandaise.
Hollandaise, of course, is that voluptuous French sauce of lemon and butter, emboldened by egg yolks. It belongs to that futzy, storied family of emulsions, which also counts mayonnaise among its members. Traditional recipes are peppered with warnings, like careful, and curdle, and if it breaks... This has always been a sore spot for me, and for years my results were what euphimists might call "mixed". Pessimists would pick "dismal", without passing go. I can't be relied upon to be careful with a sauce when there are siblings to referee. And, just as a matter of principle, I'm not a fan of food that breaks.
I am, however, a wild fan of hollandaise. So when I stumbled upon the blender method a few years back, I was more than a little intrigued. After all, the blender had turned that other cliff-hanger, lemon curd, into a non-chalant, no-sweat affair. Also, in an attempt to love mayonnaise last summer, I'd made a blender batch, which was just as easy as Luisa says. And since hollandaise and mayonnaise are kissing cousins—the key distinctions being that hollandaise replaces a whiff of dijon with a jigger of lemon juice, and swaps out all that oil for 2 cubes (!) of melted butter—I figured it was worth a go. Five minutes later, I was sold. Also a little astonished, and a lot lemon-breathed. If you think hollandaise hard, you'd be wrong about that, also.
I set out to confirm this fact twice in recent weeks. Qualtiy control, you understand. The first night, I set a pan of asparagus to simmer briefly, in well-salted water just until knife-tender. In the seven minutes it took those stalks to brighten, I melted butter, squeezed a lemon, and in sixty whizzing seconds, so disoriented those egg yolks they didn't even think to mutiny. Then, last Thursday, faced with twenty minutes and a fierce hunger, Henry and I whipped up eggs benedict for lunch. To be clear, here, we usually have fruit, cheese and crackers. Maybe scrambled eggs, if we're feeling fancy. But I was tickled by the notion that with pantry staples plus a blender, this banquet brunch star could be a busy afternoon's lunch.
And this, my friends, is the dark underbelly of blender hollandaise: nothing so good should be so easy. You start scanning the kitchen for vehicles, excuses: Fish! Broccoli! Tablespoons! Index Fingers! So in the interest of modesty and mild restraint, I've decided to limit it to asparagus, for now. Because, while you can't really go wrong with hollandaise plus anything, you can't get more right than dunk spear, eat, repeat.
Hollandaise Sauce + Steamed Asparagus
adapted from Gourmet Today
Any size of asparagus (pencil-thin, pinky-thick, and thumb-giant) works here, but do stick with roughly (any) one width, for even cooking. I "trim" asparagus by holding the stalk at the center and, with the other hand, snapping off the wide end; it will snap at the point where tough turns to tender.
I prefer my hollandaise on the zippy side, so replaced some of the original recipe's water with additional lemon juice. Start with 1 tablespoon, and adjust to taste. I've included the original recipe's range in liquid, which allows for a range in the end consistency, but frankly, I cannot imagine needing more than 3 tablespoons total. Two (all lemon) yields a thick, plush, billowy sauce for dipping (think artichokes, asparagus, fingers). Three tablespoons (two lemon juice, one water) produces a velvety, pourable sauce suitable for fish, crèpes or eggs benedict. Lastly, I find my stick blender invaluable here, though an ordinary stand blender ought to do the job nicely.
Please note: eggs may not be entirely cooked. We use local, organic farmer's market eggs here. Pasteurized eggs, available at most groceries, will eliminate any risk of salmonella.
1 1/2 pounds asparagus, washed, ends snapped
2 sticks (1 cup) salted butter
3 large egg yolks
1-2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1-3 tablespoons warm water
1/8 tsp. salt
Prepare asparagus: In a wide, deep skillet, bring 1" of water to a boil, then add 2 teaspoons of salt. Turn down to a steady simmer, lay asparagus in bubbling water, and leave to steam-simmer until just knife-tender: 3-5 minutes for thin, 5-7 minutes for medium, 7-9 minutes for thick. Check by poking at thickest point with a knife; knife should insert with little resistance. Alternatively, lift one spear from the water. When held by its thick end, spear should just begin to droop. Drain well.
Prepare hollandaise: Melt butter. Remove from heat, let stand 3 minutes, then skim off most of foam with a table spoon.
In a tall measuring cup (if using a stick blender) or in the blender jar (if using a stand blender), combine egg yolks, lemon juice, salt and 1 tablespoon lemon juice. Blend briefly, 2 seconds. With motor running at a moderate speed, add hot melted butter in a slow, steady stream, leaving milk solids on bottom of pan behind. Mid-way through, add a second tablespoon of liquid, lemon juice or warm water, to taste. When all butter has been added, blend an additional ten seconds, then sample for consistency and seasoning. Add additional lemon juice/water and salt/pepper to taste, and enjoy.
Note: Although hollandaise is best eaten shortly after making, this recipe makes a lot, and we held some for later. Reheat by warming gently over simmering water, and whisking in an additional 1-2 tablespoons warm water to loosen.