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Spear Parts: Cooking with Asparagus

The name asparagus comes from the Greek word for “sprout” or “shoot.”
Asparagus dish, green or white

Asparagus has a long history of being treasured. The early Greeks and Romans not only prized the elegant spear as a delicious food, they considered it an aphrodisiac as well as a nifty first aid treatment for bee stings and toothaches. So fond were these early culinarians of the vegetable, they even dried asparagus for use in the winter. Centuries later, King Louis XIV of France furthered the cause of a year-round asparagus supply by ordering special greenhouses built for that purpose. Today, asparagus—both green and white—is one of the most welcome vegetables in a chef ’s kitchen, especially if it’s harvested locally at the peak of freshness.


The name asparagus comes from the Greek word for “sprout” or “shoot.” A member of the lily family, asparagus has been cultivated since antiquity and is now grown in much of the world. Asparagus was first planted in the United States in California during the 1850s; that state now produces most of the green asparagus—more than 50,000 tons annually—for the fresh food market. The spears grow from a crown that is planted about a foot deep in sandy soil. Each crown sends up spears for about six or seven weeks during the spring and early summer. (In ideal conditions, a spear can grow ten inches in 24 hours!) A labor-intensive crop, asparagus is harvested completely by human hands that take the vegetable from the field, through the packing lines, and into the shipping crates with great care so as not to break the delicate tips.

White asparagus comes from the same plant as the green variety, but before the spears emerge from the ground (at which point sunlight would turn them green) dirt is piled on top of the plants so that the stalks continue to grow covered underground. Harvest time is determined when the tip breaks the soil surface, signaling the field worker to probe underground with a special knife to cut the all-white stalk. The most coveted supplies of white asparagus generally come from European growers.


Although asparagus has great versatility in recipes, most chefs agree that the less you do with the spears, the better. “I like them [green asparagus] with poached quail eggs,” said Nathan Berniau, chef de cuisine at the Harraseeket Inn, a luxury country inn with two award-winning restaurants and a banquet business in Freeport, Maine. He says he doesn’t want the asparagus flavor to be washed out by “over-the-top dishes . . . I don’t like them roasted. I think it defeats the purpose.” Berniau, who oversees the inn’s main dining room, buys one case of green asparagus every two or three days. He uses green asparagus in an entrée of chicken, shaved black truffles, and salsify puree. Another Berniau favorite is grilled halibut served on a bed of green asparagus with carrot-maple puree. For his elaborate Sunday brunch buffet of hot and cold dishes, the chef serves asparagus with prosciutto, in a scallion frittata, and as a decorative accent in salads and a variety of other cold dishes.


While green asparagus is common everywhere in the United States, the white variety is generally more exotic. In Germany, however, the white variety “has a cultlike status,” says Chef Hans Rockenwagner of his eponymous restaurant in Santa Monica. “No other country makes such a big fuss over the white asparagus.” Restaurants change their entire menus during the white asparagus season, when it is the star attraction. Germans devour 72,000 tons of the vegetable each year and name an annual “Spargel Queen” who wears a crown of white asparagus spears.


Rockenwagner grew up near the Spargelstrasse (Asparagus Road) towns of Schwetzingen and Bruchsal in Germany, where he believes the finest white asparagus are grown. He describes white asparagus as “earthy and rich” and adds, “At best it’s like drinking a great wine.” To share his enthusiasm for white spears, Rockenwagner initiated an annual white asparagus festival at his restaurant 15 years ago. Initially, he lost money “because nobody knew what white asparagus was.” But, little by little, it caught on.

“I started importing the asparagus and educating people about its heritage, quality, versatility, and cultural value,” Rockenwagner continues. “Now every spring for a limited period that ends in mid-June, 75 percent of my menu’s dishes contain white asparagus—similar to many German restaurants.” According to the Santa Monica chef, customers “seem to prefer the white asparagus steamed or boiled with Black Forest ham,” and he notes, “This is a very traditional way to serve them in Germany.”

Executive Chef Anton Brunbauer, who oversees seven restaurants and a banquet operation at the Westin Kierland Resort in Phoenix, was born in Austria into a family of chefs who all adored white asparagus. “We used to eat them with eggs sunny-side-up for breakfast . . . maybe with a little cheese.” This is still one of Brunbauer’s favorite ways to eat white asparagus. He favors classic dishes like fresh white asparagus with roasted potatoes and béarnaise sauce or with boiled new potatoes and a lemon-dill marinade. He also recommends the combination of asparagus and Serrano ham or prosciutto, but he adds another detail: a sprinkling of freshly grated Reggiano Parmigiano.


Asparagus—both green and white—can be pencil thin, or they can be as thick as a big man’s thumb. Some people think that asparagus are older if they are bigger, but in general, the larger size comes from younger, more vigorous plants. The younger the plant, the greater the number of jumbos produced. Smaller-size asparagus grow from older plants that have been planted closer together. Among Germans and Swiss, the jumbo spears are especially prized.

In Brunbauer’s opinion, “The larger the asparagus, the better the flavor and texture, which holds true for green and white.” On the other hand, Ed Baker at Earthy Delights in Michigan describes the baby white asparagus he sells as “tender and creamy and working best with the simplest flavors such as a squeeze of lemon with either a little melted butter or a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil.” These pencil-thin white spears come 140 to the pound and were developed in Washington State. One of the signature products at Earthy Delights, baby white asparagus is available from February through October in limited quantities for about $32 a pound, plus shipping.


While asparagus is associated with spring, in today’s global market it is available year-round from most restaurant produce suppliers. During the North American off-season, spears are often grown in Peru and other South American countries for export here. White asparagus are also available year-round, but chefs agree that those grown in South America are more woody, bitter, and not as big as US asparagus.

Rockenwagner has white asparagus air-shipped from Europe to his restaurant twice a week in the spring, “so they are not out of the ground more than 36 hours. He remembers when they were once shipped in old-fashioned baskets, but now suppliers use Styrofoam boxes and wet newspaper. “White asparagus must stay moist or they lose their sugar and turn brown.” Depending on the season, Rockenwagner pays $10 to $15 a pound. “It rivals fois gras,” he said.

“Only reliable produce companies will handle such a delicate vegetable properly,” says Chef Brunbauer. “White asparagus must show a clean cut with little discoloring. Chilling asparagus to 34 degrees [Fahrenheit] immediately is essential to maintain its quality.” Ideally, the stems of white asparagus should be firm, crisp, and plump with a characteristic velvety sheen; the tips should be intact and firm.

Asparagus should be kept hydrated until they’re used. Berniau stores them upright in an inch and a half of cold water, maintaining moisture in the bottom portion of the stalks which keeps the rest of the spears fresher. White asparagus should be stored in the darkest part of the fridge, wrapped in a damp cloth, because light affects the color. Like other vegetables, the longer asparagus is stored, the tougher it becomes.


“Most people don’t know there’s a special peeler for white asparagus only,” says Brunbauer, adding that it must be fully peeled to remove the more fibrous outer layer. The technique is to place each stalk on a flat surface and peel almost the whole stem with an asparagus peeler or a swivel vegetable peeler, starting at the tip and moving downward. Chop off any woody ends. Green asparagus should be peeled as well, except for the tender pencil-thin type.

Berniau cooks large amounts of green asparagus in what he calls “ocean water” (very salty); then, he says, I shock them in ice water and towel dry.” For plating, he gently reheats the asparagus in a little water and butter.
Rockenwagner cooks 20 to 30 pounds of white asparagus at a time, laying them down in a large pot and immersing them in a mixture of water, salt, a little sugar (depending on how naturally sweet they are), some lemon juice, and two tablespoons of butter. “The butter stays on the top of the water and just coats the asparagus,” says the chef. “A little goes a long way.”

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