Giving green light to white asparagus

Delicate-flavored stalks are increasingly at home on American tables

April 24, 2002|By Joanne E. Morvay | Joanne E. Morvay,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

If it hasn't arrived already, it's coming - pale, thin and ghostly. White asparagus soon will inhabit your grocery store produce bins, ethereal versions of the perky green stalks that brighten our spring menus. But don't be afraid.

"When you put it in your mouth, it's like eating butter," says Don Harris, co-founder of Tienda.com, a family-run company that sells preserved white asparagus at its store in Williamsburg, Va., and on its Web site.

Produce buyers, professional chefs and home cooks are increasingly finding a place on their tables for white asparagus.

World travelers know that white asparagus is the beloved standard across Europe. Spain rates white asparagus with a system similar to the way the French rate wines. Germany has its own White Asparagus Society.

Europeans are partial to white asparagus' delicate, understated flavor. But green remains the predominant asparagus grown in the United States.

The reason lies in the labor-intensive process required to grow white asparagus. Like all asparagus, white asparagus cannot be fully harvested until it has been planted for three years. But to obtain the proper flavor and color, white asparagus must never be exposed to sunlight while growing.

In Spain and other European countries, the plants are usually mounded with soil more than 1 foot high and harvested by hand, with a special knife inserted at the base of the mound.

In other areas, including South America and the United States, sawdust and opaque plastic are often used to protect the plants from sunlight.

Rich Herrara, an asparagus grower in Walkerville, Mich., says using sawdust can be a problem. If the wood is high in acid, the plants absorb that acid and can develop a bitter flavor. Some detractors complain of a bitter aftertaste in white asparagus that is not present in the green.

Bryan Butler, Maryland Cooperative Extension Service educator, says few Maryland vegetable producers have tried growing white asparagus.

For one farmer who offered the tender white stalks at a farmer's market for a single season, "There was just not enough demand," Butler says, "and it was way too much work for virtually no more money [than growing green asparagus]."

Much of the white asparagus sold in the United States is imported from Peru and Colombia. Jeannette Swain, produce buyer for the Giant Foods chain, says that's where Giant gets the white asparagus it sells.

Though Giant can offer the crop nearly year-round thanks to vegetable imports, "We see more movement during the holidays: Thanksgiving, Easter and a little bit at Christmas," Swain says.

Jeff Rixham, produce manager at Graul's in Ruxton, thinks the price (which often hovers around $6 per pound as compared to $3 or less for a pound of green asparagus) makes white asparagus a special-occasion vegetable.

Tienda.com charges $7.50 plus shipping for a jar of 8 to 12 preserved white asparagus spears from Spain. Harris says in Spain, fresh and preserved asparagus are a popular addition to salads. Restaurants also serve white asparagus as a tapa, steamed and placed alone on a plate with a dollop of homemade mayonnaise.

Alternatively, white asparagus can be marinated, used in soup, served in a variety of manners as an appetizer or mixed with other ingredients to top meat or fish.

The key is peeling the outer stalk to discard stringy, bitter pieces, says chef Rudy Speckamp, chef at Rudys' 2900 in Finksburg.

Speckamp is a white-asparagus aficionado practically by birth, because he hails from Germany and worked as an apprentice chef there and in Switzerland. About a decade ago, he began serving an annual white-asparagus dinner at his restaurant. At first, attendance hovered around 40 patrons. Last spring, Speckamp served white-asparagus-themed dishes to 100 diners. He expects to draw even more to this year's dinner on June 5.

He admits that for some people, white asparagus is still an acquired taste. And not everyone acquires it. Rixham, at Graul's, says some customers are dissatisfied with the vegetable's lighter flavor. Although, he points out, "Since it's not so strong, people that don't [normally] like asparagus might actually try it and like it."

Ensalada Mista

Serves about 4

4 potatoes (optional)

4 eggs

1 can of tuna in olive oil

4 tomatoes

4 to 6 stalks white asparagus

1 head Romaine lettuce

12 artichoke hearts

20 olives

6 tablespoons olive oil

1 tablespoon lemon juice

salt and pepper

Boil potatoes, if using, in salted water. Peel and dice. Hard-boil eggs. Drain tuna fish. Cut tomatoes and eggs into halves. Cook asparagus in salted water. (Preserved white asparagus may be used if fresh stalks are not available.) Wash and dry lettuce. Put potatoes, tuna, lettuce, artichoke hearts and olives in a salad bowl. Make a dressing with olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper. Sprinkle dressing on the salad. Then garnish with eggs, tomatoes and asparagus.

-- From Tienda.com

Marinated White Asparagus With Parma Ham

Serves 4

2 pounds white asparagus, peeled

1 tablespoon salt

small pinch sugar

1 tablespoon champagne vinegar or rice vinegar

1 tablespoon hazelnut oil

1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

2 tablespoons asparagus stock (left over from cooking asparagus)

1 teaspoon chopped fresh herbs (combination of cilantro, parsley and chives)

16 slices very thin Parma ham or imported prosciutto

ground pepper to taste

Simmer peeled asparagus for 8 to 10 minutes in 2 quarts of boiling water that has been seasoned with the salt and sugar. Remove and drain dry. Prepare marinade by combining vinegar, oil, mustard, asparagus stock and herbs; pour over asparagus. Refrigerate 2 to 3 hours. To serve, place asparagus on plate, cover with ham (leave tips exposed), season with fresh ground pepper to taste.

- Rudy Speckamp

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