Funny how some dishes cause some sort of a continental divide between the Anglosaxon world and -in this case- the rest of mainland Europe. I say the word ‘ASPARAGUS’, and what image does that word conjure up for you? If you’re from the UK, America or Australia, I bet you are thinking of green asparagus. But for those of us from Holland, Germany, Belgium and even France, it’s white asparagus that springs to mind.
I don’t think I ever even ate green asparagus until I was in my twenties! Asparagus in Holland is white, and only available between late april and mid june. It comes from our southernmost province Limburg, where the ‘White Gold’ is grown under truncated mounds of fine soil. The darkness ensures that the stems remain ivory-white: once thet are allowed to stick their noses above ground they turn green and lose all their delicacy and value.
Because white asparagus is only available for a few weeks, it’s very seasonal and that adds to its specialty. Being able to eat something for only a short period makes you celebrate its arrival and lament its leaving. You gorge yourself on it while it’s there, and then basically you wait a whole year. Oh sure, you can get white asparagus in cans or jars, or flown in from South Africa, but really: that’s beside the point.
Green asparagus is nowhere near as exclusive or as delicate. You can pretty much buy it year-round and the taste is nowhere near the taste of its white cousin. Green asparagus tastes like broccoli stems more than anything. You can even just get the canned kind -Green Giant!- because that tastes exactly as boring as fresh green asparagus. Whereas the white kind has a totally unique, delicate flavour; slightly sweet and velvety and utterly, completely delicious.
Another difference between the Green and the White is its versatility. Green asparagus will pretty much stand up to anything you do to it in the kitchen. You can boil it, steam it, stir-fry and gratin it, you can eat it cold in a salad, you can slice it and use it as a sandwich topping and you can use it in French, Italian, Mexican, Chinese cuisine and so, so much more. Green asparagus goes well with lamb, it goes well with fish, it gets along fine with cheese, it is basically one of the most versatile, easy to use vegetables.
Not so with the white asparagus! Oh no. First: it hás to be squeaky fresh, and you can take that literally: fresh asparagus make a squeaking sound when you rub them together. Second: you need to peel them, and be quite generous with peeling them too. Nothing is more annoying than having to chew through the tree-bark like consistency of a badly peeled asparagus. It’s therefore best to buy thick, straight asparagus that can be peeled properly. Third: white asparagus has to be boiled in water. Nothing else will do. Steam won’t get the job done, stir-frying is unthinkable, you cannot eat them raw. You have to boil them until they are just right, in water with a bit of salt and sugar. Twenty minutes should do the trick, but do test your asparagus by piercing it with a skewer. Does it go in with a little bit of resistance? Then your White Gold is done.
Now, when it comes to serving asparagus, there is a range of options, and there are cookbooks out there that try desperately to be original, coming up with black bean stir-fry’s or even an asparagus pannacotta. I would like to slap the ‘cooks’ who invented those miserable creations around the ears with the thickest and wettest asparagus I can find. When you have such a delicate, expensive ingredient, you want it to be the star. Right? So keep it simple! I have had asparagus in lots of different ways but the best remains served with egg mimosa, thin strips of York ham, and parsley. Final touch is either melted butter (all golden and delicious) or a home-made beurre blanc or a Hollandaise. It is acceptable to serve the asparagus with chopped smoked salmon instead of the ham, but that’s pretty much it. Have some steamed new potatoes to go with it, or a nice self-made mash, and you will have a truly wonderful meal.
Now, as for all those precious asparagus peels: don’t bin them but use them to make a lovely asparagus soup. Do, however, take the peels out before you serve, and do not, under ANY circumstance, feel compelled to blitz them up with your food processor. You will end up with an excellent base for making paper… but a truly awful, inedible soup that will have you grabbing for the toothpicks for the rest of the evening. Just ask my best friend Y…