Which is the best kind of asparagus – white or green? Opinions, as Noel Coward observed in quite another context, are sharply divided. It seems to depend on where you live. Loosely speaking, Anglo-Saxons favour the green, along with the northern Italians and the Spaniards. Around these parts – Alsace, the Black Forest, Switzerland – people are more into the white or the mauve-tipped varieties.
On the subject of white and green asparagus, for ages I laboured under the misconception that these were two completely different animals. Monsieur Werner Girroy, our local asparagus farmer who once did double duty as the Vice-President and Grand Piqueur of Alsace’s Confrerie de l’Asperge (Asparagus Fraternity), put me right. It turns out that white asparagus would be green if it ever got the chance to poke its nose up above the sandy soils in which it grows. Its ivory colour is due to the fact that it’s mounded over with earth (‘blanched’, like leeks or potatoes) and never permitted to see the light of day. When the blanched white stuff does manage to get its nose above ground, the tips turn a delicate shade of mauve.
In this western end of the industrialised, urbanised world where everything is available all year round and we’ve pretty much lost our sense of the seasons, locally grown asparagus – whether white or green – can be a rare and precious treat. Here’s an idea: let’s vote with our shopping baskets, turn our backs on (and our noses up at) the imported or frozen stuff, punch the air and rejoice that some things are still truly seasonal. There’s a time to eat this wonderful vegetable, and it’s now.
Time for full disclosure: even though I live in one of the world centres of white asparagus cultivation (they love the sandy soils of the Rhine Valley, both on the French and German sides), my heart still stays with the green variety. They win on flavour, colour and above all, user-friendliness. There’s no need to peel them – just take a hold of the bottom (fat) end of each spear with both hands and gently inch your way up the stalk, bending gently the while till they snap cleanly. (And PS keep the trimmings for the soup at the end of this post.)
There are loads of different ways to cook and serve this gorgeous spring vegetable. As ever, simplest is best. The classic, tall, straight-sided asparagus pan with a wire basket inside to hold the spears upright does the business if your favoured method is to boil/steam them, though the pan has a hard job earning its keep the rest of the year. If you have a big saucepan or casserole big enough to take the spears lying down, this works fine too.
Nowadays I most often arrange the spears in one layer in a roasting pan or in one of my Catalan cassolas, anoint them with olive oil, sprinkle them parsimoniously with sea salt and give them a 10-15 minute roasting in a 220oC/425oF oven until just tender when pierced in the thickest parts with a small sharp knife.
Or, using the same olive oil/sea salt treatment, you can cook them on a ridged grill pan or on the barbecue (lay them across the bars, duh, otherwise they fall through).Then serve them with hollandaise, maltaise, or – a great idea from Catalunya – salsa romesco, that dangerously addictive, sunset-coloured sauce based on toasted ground almonds, hazelnuts, tomatoes, olive oil and loads of garlic, which is served with calçots, the distinctive, elongated onions grilled to a frazzle over fierce fires made from vine clippings.
The simplest sauce of all for asparagus is this vinaigrette thickened with a whole egg, a bit like a runny mayonnaise:
1 tsp Dijon mustard
salt and pepper
300ml olive oil
100ml wine or cider vinegar
a pinch of sugar
Place all ingredients in a jug or wide-necked jar and blend till smooth and emulsified, using a hand-held (stalk) blender.
POSTCRIPT: Reluctant to chuck away all those trimmings from your asparagus? Don’t: reserve them for this super soup, combined with pungent wild garlic (ramsons) plus a couple of potatoes to give body. Serve topped with a blob of crème fraiche – also yummy served cold.
SPRING GREEN SOUP WITH ASPARAGUS TRIMMINGS AND WILD GARLIC
Makes about 2 litres/8 cups, serving 6-10 depending on portion size
2 good handfuls wild garlic leaves
500g trimmings from green asparagus
2 large floury potatoes, peeled and cubed
1.5 litres water + 1 tsp salt (or vegetable stock)
Salt and pepper
125 to 250ml (1/2 to 1 cup) crème fraîche
Garnishes: asparagus tips, prawns, wild garlic flowers etc.
- Remove stalk ends from garlic leaves and chop roughly.
- Bring 1.5 litres (4 cups) salted water to a boil and cook garlic for 5 minutes. Lift out the leaves with a slotted spoon and set them aside.
- Add the potato cubes to the pan, simmer for 10 minutes, add the asparagus trimmings and cook 5-10 minutes more till both potatoes and asparagus are soft. Add blanched wild garlic leaves and blend till smooth with a hand-held blender.
- Push the soup through a strainer – you need to do this to remove fibres – and return it to the pan.
- Bring soup back to the boil, whisk in the cream (reserve a bit for floating on top of the soup) and season to taste, adjusting if necessary.
- Serve in soup bowls or small coffee cups, float a blob of crème fraiche on top and garnish with wild garlic flowers.