One of the best things about spring for me is white asparagus - probably because it's so elusive... here one minute, gone the next! It's the things that have a very limited season that I await with the most anticipation and if you've ever been to a market when the first bunches of white asparagus appear on the stalls and saw an otherwise inconspicuous woman jump up and down for joy, that would be me!
I have never understood people who don't like white asparagus, I have even heard certain (very well-regarded) food bloggers call them bland... which couldn't be further from the truth, if you are in the possession of any tastebuds whatsoever! Although I have to say, I have tasted white asparagus in France once and didn't think it was as good as what I know from back home, and you must never, ever, eat asparagus preserves, as their sliminess is hard to swallow and its subtle taste is completely drowned in the brine/vinegar or whatever is used to preserve them.
Fresh white asparagus grown in Central Europe is a different breed, though, call it the Ferrari of asparagus, if you must: it has the most fantastic subtle taste and so many different flavour nuances that are hard to describe. Its high water content makes for a very light texture, the taste is sweet and lightly nutty and can, especially towards the end of the season, show some signs of bitterness, but very delicately so, even less than chicoree - and you can minimise even that by adding a piece of (white) bread to the boiling water.
The variety I bought at the Borough Market the other day was not actually pure white asparagus, but pink/purple asparagus (asparagi rosa di Mezzago) from Northern Italy - it is essentially white, but sports the cutest purplish-pink tips... and tastes just the same, if a bit more bitter, than my beloved pure-bred white. Contrary to green asparagus, which pretty much grows rampant in Europe, its white cousin is scarce here and is difficult to grow. The stalks stay white because they are not kissed by any sunlight, being sheltered by meticulously topping the soil up with compost or, in some regions, protective casing, to completely wrap the spears in darkness. It is one of the most sought-after vegetables, because of its delicate flavour and limited season, but maybe also due its dietetic merits: it is very low in calories (only 20 in 100 grams) and extremely rich in minerals and folic acid as well as vitamins (500 g contain your RDA of Vitamin C, for example). It also has great diuretic qualities, making it popular with anyone on a weight-loss mission.
I sometimes think of it as a truffle. Being so seasonal and labour-intensive to grow and harvest makes it difficult to get and thus quite expensive: Class I Super, as per EU regulations, must be between 12 and 26 mm thick, grown straight with a neat, closed tip, and average 22 cm in length. In Austria, we add another category, the "Solospargel+", which needs to be 25 - 30 mm thick and back in my student days went for an unhealthy 250 Schillings per kilo (the equivalent of £12 or $25, and let me just tell you that this was one eigth of my monthly allowance!) - but the extortionate prices didn't keep me from queuing for it at the break of dawn to get my hands on a bunch! You see, there's even a dedicated shop in Vienna (1060 Wien Linke Wienzeile 72, now open Wed. to Fri 9am - 6pm, Sat. from 8 am - 1pm), close to the best market in town, the Naschmarkt - it's only open during asparagus season, roughly from mid April to mid June, and sells just white asparagus. They supply exclusively the best restaurants in Austria and any surplus is sold off to gourmands willing and able to form an orderly queue for it in the wee hours of the morning... It's a cooperative of farmers coming in from the Marchfeld, the prime asparagus region, and they cut the stalks at the break of dawn to sell it within a few hours every Saturday. The top category goes very fast, so by mid-morning, you're only left with the thinner or broken stalks, classified as "soup asparagus". If you want the top of the crop, you have to be there bright and early, but believe me, it is sooo worth it!
Which brings me to the most important thing: how to enjoy it. The most popular ways to eat it, of course, are not necessarily the most health-conscious, off-setting any dietary benefits described above: sauce hollandaise is probably the most popular accompaniment, although I like mine best when it's smothered in melted butter and sprinkled with parmesan... try it wrapped in parma ham or in a basic white sauce with truffle shavings, or (a favourite with my parents) with buttered breadcrumbs, sometimes with just a hint of anchovy. Also a perennial favourite up and down the menus is asparagus velouté, closely followed by asparagus soufflé, and a variety of terrines.
Served with a simple hollandaise, asparagus is also one of the few things that table etiquette (at least where I come from) allows you to eat with your fingers - and therefore falls in the same category as other sensual food like lobster and mussels (and French fries ;-))... plus, it is often said to be an aphrodisiac as well. But before you run out to the shops in the hope to get some, bear in mind that it tends to cause flatulence and some very smelly winds at that!
For buying tips and serving suggestions, please click below to read the continuation of this post...
Green asparagus recipes on thepassionatecook:
Venison fillet on apple & asparagus "lasagne" (February 2007)
Asparagus risotto (May 2005)
Smoked haddock & asparagus open lasagne (August 2004)
Spicy spaghetti with asparagus & pancetta (May 2006)
Asparagus with poached egg and pecorino shavings (September 2005)
This is a submission to Meeta's Monthly Mingle (a day late, sorry! I really tried).
Some tips for making asparagus:
- Buy it very fresh, on the same day as it was cut, if you can.
- Make sure the ends (bottoms) of the stalk are still wet and not woody. Press your thumb against the cut: if water oozes out, your asparagus is very fresh indeed! Rub two stalks lightly against each other: you're after a squeaky sound if they're only a few days old.
- Peel your stalks from the top down, contrary to what you do with green asparagus, starting just under the tip. Make sure all the fibrous strands are gone.
- Asparagus purists will not only have a dedicated asparagus peeler, but also an asparagus pot. I personally believe that none of that is necessary: just be careful to not over-bend the stalks when peeling so they don't break - the fresher they are, the more water they contain, so they break more easily. As for the pot, I always boil them lying flat in a large pot, with enough room to move around - a bit of exercise has never done anyone any harm!
- Boil for 10 - 20 minutes, depending on thickness. I suggest you buy the thickest you can find, the top class will be 3 cm thick and need 20 minutes. Cook in water to which you add salt (about as much as for cooking pasta), a tsp of sugar and a tsp of butter, plus an old white bread roll.
- If you're making a meal of it, I would easily count 1 kg per person. Remember that it consists of 93% water!
- Melted butter & grated parmesan
- Melted butter or white sauce with shaved truffle
- Sauce Hollandaise (try equal parts of lemon and orange juice and add some zest for more oomph, if you like)
- Wrapped in Parma or Serrano ham
- Cooked, then topped with breadcrumbs (from 2 slices toast and 1 anchovy fillet) and popped under the grill for a few minutes.
- Cooked, then sprinkled with crispy bacon bits and rye brad crumbs.
- Any broken asparagus or lower-grade stalks can be cooked as a soup, first fried in some butter, then simmered in some stock and pureed. Finish off with some double cream and season to taste.
- A salad with half white, half green asparagus, both cooked to required tenderness, then combined in a bowl, some champagne vinegar and olive oil, optionally sprinkled with some diced red pepper for visual drama.
- Serve on a big plate with your aperitifs, with fresh lime or orange hollandaise, for people to dip the stalks into.
The best wine matches for white asparagus would be an Austrian (very light and dry) Riesling, an Austrian Sauvignon Blanc, an Italian Pinot Grigio or you can try a Riesling from the Alsace.
And for all German speakers, there's a dedicated asparagus recipe book available for download here. It was written by Norbert Bader, of Restaurant "Taverne am Sachsengang" and contains recipes for everything from a simple soup or soufflé to strudel and lasagne... all made with asparagus.