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Spring in Western Pennsylvania means one thing — asparagus shoots are sprouting from their banks and will be showing up in farmers markets when they open for the season.
For me, there's no more secure harbinger of the exodus from winter than the oh so welcomed gift of a bundle of tender asparagus stalks from a dear friend who has been nurturing her asparagus bed for many years. A perennial, asparagus takes a few years of cultivating before it will yield its tasty rewards. It is worth the wait.
If we were transplanted to the climes of Europe, we'd welcome the arrival of asparagus, especially the white asparagus, with fanfare ranging from exuberant festivals to the crowning of asparagus royalty. There is perhaps no other country that values this healthful, mildly flavorful vegetable than Germany.
I've visited many farm markets in Western Pennsylvania and I had never seen white asparagus. But, after launching a determined hunt that featured calls to some of the region's biggest growers as well as to the largest markets, I learned that one can find white asparagus if one looks hard.
The Market District in Pine has white asparagus on its shelves most days (thanks to shipments from Peru). On a recent visit, I bumped into a friendly worker named Chris. As I asked for some assistance finding an item, he noticed the white asparagus in my cart and commented, "Oh, my mom cooks white asparagus for us. Not green. My parents are German." Ah...
There is no other vegetable more revered there during spargelzeit, which translates to asparagus season in German. Spargel is served as a main course with boiled potatoes on the side, all topped with melted butter (spargel mit butter). Unlike the white asparagus found here, the stalks in Germany are as thick as a thumb.
“As apples mark the fall season, nothing epitomizes spring like the revered white stalks of spargel!” So began a homepage article in bygermanfoods.org. The article notes that the “average German enjoys the delicate flavor of this tender spring vegetable at least once a day.” In fact, many home cooks own a special asparagus steamer pot which is either tall and slender or shallow and oval-shaped.
Sandy Feather, an extension educator with the Penn State Extension office and former garden columnist for the Post-Gazette, said white asparagus is white because it is grown in the absence of light under mounds of soil so the spears do not have the opportunity to undergo photosynthesis.
She said green asparagus is a comparatively easy crop. Aside from having to wait about three years to let it grow, the plants will yield a harvest for about six weeks and the bed will remain productive for up to 40 years.
Mary Ellen Camire, a fellow with the Institute of Food Technologists based in Chicago and a professor of food science and human nutrition at the University of Maine, studies both the "sensory evaluation" of foods as well as their nutritional content.
Likening it to a vampire’s storied aversion to light, Ms. Camire said this “vampire vegetable” requires a vegetable peeler. “It’s has a thicker skin than we’re used to with the green asparagus,” she said, noting that the variety probably became more thick-skinned because of its immersion in soil. She described the taste experience as “gentler and creamier.” My two daughters, who both spent a year in Germay, added juicier. I would add a bit “nuttier” in flavor.
She said there has not been a lot of testing of white asparagus for nutritional quality but noted it is assumed that it is very similar to green asparagus — which means it is a powerhouse of vitamins and a good source of antioxidants.
In fact, in my experimentation with the cooking of green asparagus, it is adequate to snap off the woody bottoms of green asparagus with the common trick of holding the stalk at each end (not the very tip, but rather the meatier ends of the spear) then bending and allowing the stalk to snap at its natural breaking point. Only if the stalks are especially thick do they require peeling.
The same was not true with white asparagus. I found after several go-rounds that white asparagus stalks remain tough, even with excessive cooking. A vegetable peeler should be used, stroking the stalk from the top down, to essentially peel the spear. This can be a challenge with the store-bought varieties from Peru, which are slender. But, stripping even a little of the stalk made the vegetable more delicious.
When picking asparagus, select firm, straight stalks with closed, compact tips. Both green and white asparagus may have a purplish hue at the tip and this is OK.
If not using immediately, wrap the stem ends in moist paper towels, pop into a plastic bag or wrap in plastic wrap, and refrigerate.
Prepping the stalks involves washing and snapping off the woody ends at their natural breaking point. If using white asparagus, use a vegetable peeler to shave away the “skin” a couple of inches below the tip. This technique is not necessary with green asparagus.
The underground root system of asparagus is a network of fleshy storage roots with small feeder roots that absorb water and nutrients. The storage roots are attached to an underground stem called a rhizome; taken together, storage roots and a rhizome are commonly referred to as an asparagus crown. Often, the crown is purchased for starting plants, although seeds can be used, too.
When the soil is warm and moist, buds arise from the rhizome and grow into edible spears. If they are not harvested, spears continue to develop into attractive, green, fernlike stalks (brush). Photosynthesis in the brush of the mature plant produces essential nutrients that are moved down to the storage roots where these reserve supply energy for spear production in the following growing season. For these reasons, the bush must be allowed to grow and be protected from insects and diseases.
Asparagus does poorly in soil with a pH level below 6.0 After the first growing season, asparagus plants do not require frequent irrigation because of their deep and extensive root system. Plants must be allowed to develop an adequate storage root system before the first harvesting season. Harvesting the brush during the first growing season stunts the plants and can permanently reduce yield. In the second year, when the first spears emerge in spring, snap off the upper green and tender portion of all tight spears 7- to 10-inches long.
One 40-foot row of 5-year-old asparagus will yield about 10 to 25 pounds of spears during the average season which usually ends at mid-June.
— From “How to Grow Asparagus” from Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences, courtesy of Sandy Feather of the Penn State Extension office
Karen Kane: email@example.com or 724-772-9180.
Sesame (white) asparagus with mushrooms and lemon. (Karen Kane/Post-Gazette)
Fresh mushrooms can be used instead of jarred ones. But make sure to cook them down a bit so the resulting liquid from the cooking process doesn't make the dish sloppy. I chose to use white asparagus with this dish and tossed black sesame seeds on top for some color contrast. Warning: I found that the white asparagus is not as attractive on the plate as green. But, it was scrumptious.
1 pound of asparagus (white or green)
1 (4-ounce) jar of sliced mushrooms, drained
2 tablespoons of butter
1 teaspoon of lemon juice
1 teaspoon of sesame seeds, toasted
Prepare asparagus (snap for green, peel for white) then cook in a small amount of boiling salted water in a covered pan until crisp-tender. Time depends on your preference and the thickness of the stalks. Drain well.
Transfer to a microwave safe oblong dish and add mushrooms, butter and lemon juice. Heat through in the microwave. Sprinkle with toasted sesame seeds.
— Adapted from “Better Homes and Gardens All-Time Favorite Vegetable Recipes” by Doris Eby (Meredith Corporation;1977)
Green asparagus with classic hollandaise sauce. (Karen Kane/Post-Gazette)
Asparagus With Hollandaise
A nice hollandaise is a classic accoutrement to asparagus. Because of the color contrast, I served it with the green asparagus. Remember not to overcook the hollandaise; you’ll know it’s done when it is thick enough to coat a metal spoon.
2 egg yolks
1/4 cup butter, melted
1/4 cup boiling water
1½ tablespoons of lemon juice
1/4 teaspoon of salt
Dash of cayenne pepper
In top of a double boiler, beat egg yolks with a wire whisk until smooth.
Gradually add the butter, a little at a time, beating thoroughly after each addition.
Gradually add water, again beating thoroughly with the wire whisk. Place top of double boiler over simmering water in base. (Water should not touch the top pan.) Cook over simmering water, stirring constantly, until sauce thickens. Do not overcook as sauce will curdle.
Gradually beat in lemon juice, salt and pepper.
Spoon over the cooked asparagus.
Serves 4 to 6.
— Adapted from McCall's Cooking School, McCall's Publishing Co.
Roasted white and green asparagus with Parmesan. (Karen Kane/Post-Gazette)
Roasted Asparagus With Parmesan
It's often said that less is more, and fresh asparagus proves the point. In this bare bones recipe, asparagus gets seasoned with salt, pepper and cheese, and yields a delectable result.
1½ pounds of white and green asparagus
1 tablespoon olive oil
Coarse salt and ground pepper, to taste
1/4 cup of Parmesan-Romano cheese
Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Prepare asparagus by trimming tough stalks and removing ends.
On a rimmed baking sheet, toss asparagus with olive oil; season with coarse salt and ground pepper.
Spread in an even layer. Sprinkle with cheese.
Roast until asparagus is tender and cheese is melted, 10 to 15 minutes.