It’s Not Easy Being Green: The Sad Story of A Vegetable That Just Didn't Cut It, And The Happier Tale of One That Did.

White Asparagus With Ham and Melted Butter (Recipe Below!)

White Asparagus With Ham and Melted Butter (Recipe Below!)

What very expensive food is widely celebrated as a delicacy and an aphrodisiac, grows underground, and is quite hard to find in most grocery stores?

You said truffles, didn’t you? If you did, you wouldn’t be wrong, but I was referring to the white asparagus.  If you didn’t grow up eating white asparagus in Northern Europe, you’re likely saying, “But I’ve never seen such a thing!” Exactly. Stateside, white asparagus is very hard to find and very costly, because it’s usually imported. My three measly stalks, imported from The Netherlands, and purchased expressly for this blog, cost me a whopping $7.45 at Eataly, the upscale Italian food mecca in Manhattan that was already the third fancy-pants stop on my quest to find the illusive veggie. So why bother? My mission was to find out what I’ve been missing all these years.

Expensive, no?

Expensive, no?

Not only did my German Grandfather claim that white asparagus were better than the green variety easily found here in the USA, he looked upon green asparagus with the utmost disdain. He wouldn’t even eat them. He was a feinschmecker, a gourmet, a lover of fine food. He was a foodie long before the word foodie was invented. He rhapsodized about green asparagus’ snowy white cousin, recounting stories of Spargelzeit, Germany’s celebrated asparagus season. In Germany, asparagus season isn’t just what it is here, a moment in spring when avid cooks rejoice, when farmers’ markets brim with gleaming green stalks, and when chefs and food bloggers share their newest recipes for one of spring’s first vegetables.

In contrast to our comparatively measured enthusiasm about green asparagus season, Germans go downright nuts for white asparagus, Weisse Spargel, as they are called in German (pronounced “visuh shpargul.” Spargel rhymes with gargle.) Cultivated with care in almost every German state, the white asparagus has been dubbed “the joy of spring” and “the prince of vegetables.” It takes three years for a white asparagus plant to reach maturity and produce a viable stalk. Stalks grow underground in dark, loose, soil, protected from the sun, and are harvested in the grey of early morning light. During Spargelzeit (asparagus season) in Germany, usually beginning in the month of April, Spargelfests spring up all around the country and restaurants offer special Spargel menus. Spargelzeit, a true nationwide cultural phenomenon, is even the topic of songs (Can you imagine Americans being so gaga for a vegetable?). It’s no wonder my grandfather, who lived in upstate New York and eventually down in Florida, so missed his beloved Spargel.

Ham, being advertised as "  Ideal zum Spargel" ("Ideal on asparagus"). 

Ham, being advertised as "Ideal zum Spargel" ("Ideal on asparagus"). 

Prior to writing this blog entry, I’d cooked white asparagus once or twice, but I never found them to be spectacular, and I honestly didn’t understand all the hype. This week, with renewed interest on account of this blog, I wanted to find out if I could understand what all my grandfather’s fuss was about. It turns out, I was cooking them all wrong. Unlike the green variety, which, when fresh, can be sweet, crunchy, and tender enough to eat raw, white asparagus call for a totally different kind of preparation.  The stalks of white asparagus are usually thick, with a woody bottom and fibrous skin, which must be removed before cooking. After researching German cookbooks and websites to find out how to prepare my three little stalks, I came up with the method I’ve included here.

So what was my final assessment? I’m not giving up my fresh, crunchy green asparagus any time soon, but I get it. The white ones are buttery and soft, without the strong “asparagus-y-ness” that the green ones can have. Dipping the sweet, tender bites into melted butter, I felt more like I was eating lobster than a vegetable, and my chosen accompaniment of smoky Speck ham was spot on. The only thing missing was a nice, crisp glass of Riesling. If you are so inclined, I recommend opening up a bottle, inviting a friend, and buying enough white asparagus to make a special meal of them. See below for the recipe and some serving suggestions.

Method For Cooking and Serving White Asparagus

 

Ingredients:

  • White asparagus

  • Sugar

  • Salt

  • Lemon

  • Butter

1.     Wash the asparagus and pat them dry. Trim off the woody ends.

2.     Lying the asparagus flat on a cutting board so they don’t snap as you clean them, use a peeler to remove the skin from almost the entirety of the stalk, starting from just below the top of each stalk, peeling to the bottom end, and leaving the tender tip unpeeled. Pay extra attention to the bottom ends of the stalk, which may need a bit more peeling to remove any fibrous bits that will make chewing unpleasant.

3.     Save the ends and the peels! In a wide, shallow saucepan (one which will be big enough for your asparagus to lie in) place the peels, the ends, a slice of lemon, about 1 teaspoon of salt and a tablespoon of sugar.

4.     Cover the peels and ends with about 2 inches of water, cover the pot, bring to a boil, and allow them to simmer for about an hour. You will end up with a broth in which to cook the stalks. After the hour is up, taste for seasoning, adding a bit more salt if you think it needs it. Remove the peels etc.

5.     Put asparagus stalks in boiling broth, topping up with a bit of boiling water if need be to make sure the stalks are fully covered with water. Add a few tablespoons of butter to the pot, cover the pot and turn the heat to medium low, allowing the stalks to cook for 15 minutes.

6.     After 15 minutes, take a small slice from the bottom of the thickest stalk and taste for doneness. Stalks should be very tender, but still al dente. Depending on thickness, they may need anywhere from 15-30 minutes. Mine took about 30.

7.     When done to your liking, remove the asparagus from the pot, and save the broth! The fragrant, buttery broth is super-flavorful and makes a great base for a delicate vegetable soup.

8.     White asparagus can be served with any number of rich sauces, Hollandaise being a particularly popular one in Germany. My grandfather said he ate his with melted butter, so that’s what I did. In addition to using the sauce of your choice, you may also want to serve white asparagus the very traditional way, alongside boiled potatoes, and rolled-up-slices of ham (any kind from a good domestic ham to prosciutto to speck, which is what I had).

I’d love to know what you think: White asparagus…are they worth it? Let me know in the comments below.