I’m gonna dive right in with a Fun Fact:
127 000 tonnes of asparagus are eaten each year in Germany – 1.6 kilos per capita. I take this to mean there were people who ate five kilos of asparagus and some (tiny babies) who ate exactly zero. It may well be true, what they say, about the Germans. For as the legends go, and for the six weeks a year it’s produced locally, basically the entire population goes bat-shit crazy for it. The white stuff in particular. What I’m trying to say is that it’s Spargelzeit Right Now but that it’s my First Time, so, let’s take it slow – I’m a little Nervous about the whole thing.
White asparagus is seldom grown in New Zealand, wholly underrated and regarded with suspicion, some considering it an ‘albino substitute’ for the real deal. I too had heard tales of its existence, and scoffed. How Improbable. But amusingly, white asparagus is fundamentally the same monster as green asparagus, in that it Could be green, only it is grown under soil, stalks deprived (cruelly, it may seem) of light, thus producing no chlorophyll. Subsequently, it is regarded as sweeter, more tender, more better. A king among phallic vegetables. The vegetarian equivalent of an axolotl with reduced pigmentation.
Having frolicked home from the (super)market with my First Ever Bundle of white asparagus stalks, pale and foreign, I thusly appointed Tim (German as he is) asparagus expert, who proceeded to demonstrate how the ends must be cut, to the point at which they appear juicy, and how the stalks themselves must be peeled. The peel and cuttings are reserved for soup, as customary round these parts, and I like this plan.
The cooking method goes as follows:
In a wide-bottomed pot*, enough water to comfortably cover a layer of sleeping asparagus is brought to the boil with pinches of sugar, salt, lemon juice and white wine. I don’t know how much exactly. Splashes, to taste? Pepper too, if one feels so inclined. Asparagus now. Lid on, 12 minutes, simmer.
*OR, as some Germans will have it – in an Asparagus Pot. A tall and narrow contraption, so stalks stay standing militantly. The tips require less cooking, and are steamed pleasantly rather than simmered this way.
As the Spargel was doing it’s thing, we whipped up a buttery hollandaise. I had become a Bit overwhelmed by the very serious ‘Hot Butter Sauces’ chapter in Harold McGee’s gigantic compendium, and we proceeded to confuse ourselves thoroughly by consulting four rather different recipe variations, online and off. So naturally the first attempt, with tensions rising, resulted in horrible curdled failure – I think too much heat, at some point? At all of the points? – but the second try turned out OKAY and we’ll leave it at that, for now.
Meanwhile, the asparagus returned from the pot, all dreamy, so we lovingly spooned these with leftover butter. And I know we’ve just named this blog Butter Chaos, but we don’t Always cook with such a fuckload of butter, so let’s call this one coincidence.
Sprinklings of Schnittlauch (chives!) are mandatory garnish. And because we are in Germany, a side of potatoes – cooked whole and butter-fried. This style of food is new to me. The asparagus is squishy and mildly sweet, which I’m assured is good. The hot cooked-ness of everything feels inappropriate for the warmer weather we’re experiencing, the chives imparting not nearly enough freshness. But the asparagus is both amusingly presented, and remarkably tasty. It’s a delicate beast. I begin feeling nostalgic for the 80s/90s Bavarian childhood I never had, borrowed through Tim’s cooking.
Later that afternoon, he turned the peel and the cuttings into a Spargelcremesuppe as promised. Starting with a simple buttery roux, we added, slowly, dashes of cream and asparagus-infused broth, gratings of nutmeg and white pepper. Whisking all the while, becoming smoother and lighter and fragrant. I swoon.
And I was utterly convinced by the resulting loveliness. This perfect soup. So delicate, and silken. The kind of soup for which you put your eyelids together, all the better to feel it with the other senses. A soup for spring; a lovely thing, with a texture which makes me hopelessly sentimental – my cue to leave! We had to start somewhere, and simple things are so very wonderful.
Happy asparagus time Northern Hemisphere. Southern Hemisphere, you’re going to have to wait.
p.s. If you an asparagus expert, and/or German, and/or grew up in the 80s/90s, or none of the three, do please express your revulsions or revisions accordingly, I am oh so eager to find out more.
White Asparagus (like they made it in the 80s – and still do)
a happy bunch of white asparagus
salt, a pinch
sugar, a pinch also
squeeze of lemon juice
splash of white wine
bit of butter
a smattering of finely chopped chives (a generous Tablespoon, shall we gander)
hollandaise (but I won’t give you a recipe yet because I have No Idea anymore which method we actually ended up using. Suck it)
and a side of boiled and buttered potatoes doesn’t hurt, of course
1. Chop the ends and peel the stalks of your lovely asparagus spears. Reserve if you’re going to make a soup later which I do recommend emphatically and a pretty little recipe is below.
2. Heat a wide pan/pot with 2-3 cm of water (ie enough to cover asparagus when it’s lying down in a single layer), seasoning with salt, sugar, lemon, white wine and pepper, if using. When it comes to a simmer, and you’re happy, slide the fellows into the pot and put the lid on, medium-low heat or whatever it takes to maintain a gentle simmer. And do something else while you wait. Cooking times vary (between 5-15 minutes) with asparagus diameter which is difficult if not uniformly sized. Ours took 12 minutes and thinner stalks were slightly overcooked, but I absolutely did not care.
3. The asparagus test, as dictated to me just now, is: balance a spear at its middle on a fork, raising it out of the pot, or use a pair of tongs. That makes even more sense. Now wobble it a little. If the ends start drooping gently, nicely, it’s probably perfect! I’ve drawn you a diagram, see below. Reserve all of the cooking water for soup! Why don’t you just pour it straight into another pot, in readiness?
4. Hum sweet nothings to yourself and/or loved ones, as you place spears steamily, one after another, onto a comfortable plate for serving. Dribble with melted butter. Sprinkle chives artfully. Arrange potatoes. Drown the whole thing in hollandaise, to your liking. Devour with relish.
Asparagus Cream Soup (this soup came as a revelation of sorts, considering how simple and lovely and satisfying it turns out to be)
All of the lovely asparagus cooking water + all of the ends and the peel
butter and flour, for roux
1. Throw the asparagus bits and cooking water (all together now) in a sensible pot, allowing it to infuse gently on a low simmer and enjoy itself for 20 minutes (that should do it – if cooked too long, danger is the broth becomes bitter)
2. So once the water’s been on a while, you shall start making a little roux – melt a knob (1 tablespoon) of butter in a different pot, medium-heat then slowly add roughly the same volume of flour, stirring continuously, until it forms a paste. This happens quickly – 1 to 2 minutes, don’t allow to brown. Begin ladling in hot asparagus water, alternating with dashes of cream, small amounts each time, allowing each addition to become incorporated, for creaminess. As you stir and stir, the soup becomes thinner and silkier. Stop adding liquids when you’re happy with the texture, mindful of how many humans you will be serving. Season with salt and grated nutmeg and pinches of white pepper and squeeezes of lemon until you feel it may be perfect, to your taste. Oh how vague.
3. Serve, sprinkled generously with fresh chives, because it’s spring. And crusty bread, for cleaning your bowl. Like you needed telling.