4.24.13 Pale Fire
It was quite standard for us to order three courses whenever we ate out—which was a lot—and my choice of appetizer was often a vegetable. I loved judías blancas, meaty white beans in a chorizo-flecked tomato sauce; and judías verdes, green beans cooked to within an inch of their lives in plenty of garlic and olive oil. But my very favorite was white asparagus: three or four jumbo spears, as silky and tender as can be, cloaked with a rich veil of yellow mayonnaise. (In Spain, the best white asparagus come from Navarra, and a great many of them are preserved for sale in tins and jars, which does not diminish their flavor at all.) It's a taste of childhood that has haunted me over the years, cropping up with reassuring consistency.
Asparagus is a member of the lily family, as are onions and garlic. The spears are actually shoots that sprout up from the crown of the plant. All asparagus start out white, before they emerge from the earth and are exposed to the chlorophyll-producing sunlight that turns them green. The technique of keeping them sheltered by continually molding soil around the spears as they push up out of the ground was developed in France in the 17th century.
This requires backbreaking labor, which explains white asparagus’ high prices of up to $14 per pound, depending on its origin and what remains of the season, which starts in early April and ends at the summer solstice. I spent $27 for two pounds at Eataly, but it's a once-a-year splurge that still costs less than a good rib-eye.
Asparagus are a great favorite of the Germans, and when I was living in Los Angeles a decade ago I was thrilled to rediscover this childhood passion. The bounty of spring asparagus—both green and white—at the Santa Monica Farmer's market, especially the spears as big around as a baby's wrist, will make you swoon. Hans Röckenwagner an L.A.-based German expat chef offers an annual spargelkarte, a multi-course all-asparagus menu. However creative he gets (candied white asparagus with blood orange mousse?), he is always sure to feature the classic German presentation: a single serving of a whole pound of perfectly steamed white asparagus spears surrounded by delicate new potatoes, thin slices of smoky black forest ham and dollops of homemade mayonnaise.
“When it comes to the white variety, you need to block out everything you think you know about asparagus,” says Röckenwagner. “It's a completely different vegetable.''
As with the green, you'll need to snap off the ends of the white asaparagus, but also shave off the tough outer layer. Save these trimming as they make a flavorful soup!
- — 1-2 pounds fresh white asparagus
- — 4 quarts (16 cups) water
- — 2 tablespoons sea salt
- — 4 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
- — 3 tablespoons butter
- — 3 tablespoons sugar, optional
Bring the water to a simmer in a large pot with the salt, lemon juice, butter and sugar, if using.
Meanwhile, trim about ½” from the ends of the asparagus, more if they are very woody and dry. Lay the spears on a work surface and peel them with a sharp vegetable peeler, starting about 1 ½” from the top and running evenly down the length of each spear. (Spears are brittle and can snap when peeled in midair.)
Gather the spears into 2-4 bundles and tie them loosely with kitchen string, then lower them into the simmering water. Cook, increasing the heat to maintain a simmer if necessary, until the asparagus is tender when pierced with the tip of a knife, 8-30 minutes, depending on the thickness of the spears. Lift the bundles from the water with kitchen tongs and drain them on paper towels.
White Asparagus Soup
- — Trimming from 2-3 pounds white asparagus
- — 6 cups water
- — 1/4 cup (1/2 stick) butter
- — 1/2 cup minced white or yellow onion
- — 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour (gluten-free is fine)
- — 1/2 cup heavy cream or real buttermilk
- — 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
- — sea salt
- — 4 cooked white asparagus spears, optional
Bring the asparagus trimmings and water to a boil in a 4-quart saucepan. Reduce the heat to a simmer and cook about 20 minutes, then strain, reserving the broth.
Melt the butter in a medium saucepan, then add onion and cook until tender, but not browned, about 2 minutes. Stir in the flour until blended and smooth, about 1 minute.
Add 5 cups of the asparagus broth and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer 5 minutes. Stir in the cream. Simmer 1 minute. Stir in lemon juice, then taste and add salt as needed.
If using the asparagus spears, cut into 1” slices and put a few in the bottom of each bowl before serving.