Spargelzeit has descended on Germany, during which a weekend without eating the ‘white gold’ is not only impossible but practically a sin. If you are a German reader, you could probably just skip this post altogether and carry on just the way you have been with your white asparagus. But to a non-German audience, for whom this springtime delicacy is not so ubiquitous, the following might be of interest.
Dear friends Martin, Yvonne and their little one-year old Oskar were visiting over the weekend from New York. Since they both originally come from the areas surrounding Berlin, known as some of the prime Spargel-producing regions in the world, I thought, perfect– they can show me how it’s done. I should have also brought them along for the shopping, since as I learned, not all Spargel is treated alike. Best to look out for when buying white asparagus is that all pieces are approximately the same size and that they are very straight and very white. Also important is that the cuts are moist and appear fresh. If you can, before buying asparagus, squeeze the bottom to see if droplets of water come out from the cut bottom end. If they do, chances are the spears are quite fresh and will taste better. In the worst-case scenario, your stalks of asparagus will be ‘woody’ when cooked, meaning that they are fibrous and too tough to eat. Choosing Spargel directly from your region is always ideal, as it will result in the freshest specimens. This is why it rarely, if ever, pops up in North America.
Martin claims his grandfather actually had a small crop of white asparagus when he was a child, and he learned how to harvest it himself. But after the wall fell and the family got cable television, the crop was left unattended and perished. Too bad. Anyway, Martin remembered a thing or two about how white asparagus was grown– under small mounds of earth, never seeing the sun, to which it owes its albino coloring. Apparently the best Spargel in Germany comes from Beelitz, a small town not far from Berlin. Here, there is even a Spargel Queen named every year. (2013 Spargelkönigen is Miss Michaela Kranepuhl, if you were wondering. Note the color of her light golden locks is EXACTLY the color a good piece of cooked Spargel should be).
To say that the way to cook white asparagus is to boil it is technically correct, but please be gentle. For the best results, the cooking water should be salted and lightly sugared, brought to a boil but kept at a simmer as the asparagus stalks cook. The cooking time will vary greatly depending on how thick the stalks are, so you need to keep an eye on them to be sure they do not turn to mush.
There are myriad sauces and pairings that you can try with white asparagus, depending on which region in Germany you look to for inspiration. Quite classic is hollandaise sauce, but equally popular is serving the cooked asparagus with simple peeled potatoes and melted butter, perhaps with a sprinkling of parsley. Schinken, or ham, also fits well. Basically anything transforming what is essentially a superfood, packed with nutrients and detoxifying agents, into a fatty delight, will work. Our two consecutive failed attempts at hollandaise sauce (we almost had it!) caused us to turn to Plan B: melted butter with lemon, which to be honest I prefer anyway.
Recipe: White Asparagus with New Potatoes and Lemon Butter
1 kilo white asparagus
1 kilo new potatoes
200 grams butter
juice from one lemon
chopped parsley or other green herbs
1. Rinse asparagus. Trim about 1 inch (2-3 cm) from the tough ends of the spears using a sharp knife. Peel about 2/3 of each spear below the floret using a vegetable peeler, being careful not to break the asparagus. At this point, if you like, you can bind the asparagus in bundles with cooking twine in order to more easily lower them in and out of the water and not to break the tops.
2. Prepare a large pot of water with about 2 tsp of salt per liter and one tsp of sugar. Bring to a boil. Lower to a simmer and drop in either the bundles of asparagus, or gather all at once in your hands and drop at once into the water, heads upright
3. Cook at a simmer until the asparagus can be poked through with a knife. This can take anywhere from 9 – 30 minutes depending on how thick they are. When cooked through, remove from water carefully and dry. (As you pull them out, you can place them on a paper towel, for example.)
4. Meanwhile, prepare potatoes: Rinse any dirt off the new potatoes’ skins and put them in a large pot. Cover new potatoes with cool water and bring everything to a boil. Add a good amount of salt and cook, gently boiling, until the potatoes are fully tender, 10 to 15 minutes. Drain the potatoes, shaking off as much water as possible. Peel as soon as they are cool enough. Transfer to a serving dish.
5. Melt butter in a heavy sauce pan (or make brown butter, if you want to be fancier). Remove from heat.
6. Gently toss potatoes with half of the melted butter to coat and sprinkle with chopped parsley or other green herbs, if you like.
7. Whisk the lemon juice in with the remaining butter. Add a tsp of salt, or to taste, stir and then pour evenly over the asparagus spears.
8. Serve a few spears and a few potatoes on each plate and eat with some Spargel-crazed German friends.
9. Go to the bathroom in an hour or two and know that you have been detoxified.