I picked some asparagus the other day and started casting about in assorted books for a fun new way to cook them. I wasn’t having much luck (I was too lazy to make a Hollandaise sauce, as most books suggested), but I stumbled across this in Apicius: “Asparagos siccabis, rursum in calidam summitas: callosiores reddes.” (Book III.iii) This translates, essentially, to: “Peel off the woody parts, dry the asparagus, put them upright in boiling water.”
I eventually wound up broiling my asparagus with a sprinkling of olive oil and za’atar, but I found this Apicius tip particularly interesting. Obviously people have known for a long time that cooking asparagus upright gets the bottom nice and tender and keeps the tops from overcooking (cook them for 6-8 minutes, by the way, until tender when tested with a fork). This is what I love about these old books: sometimes you rediscover old tricks, and sometimes you find that some bit of cooking lore you take for granted has been around for several millenia. Now we just have special steamers to do the trick.