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The first sign of spring in Europe is when asparagus begin to show up on restaurant menus. Asparagus are considered the king of vegetables and some restaurants open only during the season serving asparagus with hollandaise sauce (Spargel mit Sauce Hollandaise), slices of ham and fresh strawberries for dessert. Once the season is over, these restaurants close.
Having lived in Germany for several years, we would see fields of white asparagus packed in dirt with the tips peeking out of the ground during the spring. They are deprived of light, which keeps them from turning green.
White asparagus are thicker and juicer but I think more fibrous. Some restaurants in Germany serve them in their water, not my favorite. A chef friend of ours, Rolf Messmer, owner of the Au Major Davel Restaurant & Hotel in Cully Switzerland (www.hotelaumajordavel.ch/), tells us that when he started his apprenticeship he cleaned tons of asparagus. He is meticulous in making sure that the skin has been neatly removed from the stalk. Using a vegetable peeler, he turns the stalks slightly with every stroke removing all the skin. He adds sugar to the water to bring out the flavor and slightly undercooks them, wrapping them in a towel for the final cooking. His asparagus are perfect and his restaurant is filled with people enjoying the king of vegetables as they watch the steamboats pulling up to the dock on Lake Geneva.
There are special asparagus pans where you stand them in a rack in about 3” of water. But you can cook them lying down in water also. Don’t overcook them, as they will become soggy and uneatable. Prick them with a knife to judge if they are beginning to get tender after about five minutes. As soon as the knife starts to penetrate the stalk remove them to a clean kitchen towel as suggested by Chef Messmer.
Green and white asparagus are interchangeable in recipes, but I feel that due to the amount of water in the white variety, they are not as good if added to pizza for instance. I also prefer the green the variety in pasta or anything where the heat continues to cook the vegetable.
When choosing asparagus, make sure they are fresh and the ends are not dried out. When they are old, they will begin to show ridges along the stem – the stem should be smooth. Store them covered in the refrigerator for a few days only. When you are ready to cook them, snap the bottoms off – they will break where the tender part starts. Discard the hard bottom parts, as they are woody and fibrous.
Asparagus are a versatile vegetable and can be roasted, boiled, steamed, made into soup, tossed with pasta and so on. The white variety tends to be a little more expensive and are not as easily found in the US as they are in Europe. I prefer the green variety, as I think they have a more intense flavor but this is a matter of taste.
Place several on a warm plate and add some hollandaise sauce over the top or on the side. It is acceptable to eat them with your hands holding the ends and dipping them in the sauce. A good chardonnay, or a light burgundy goes well with this dish.
Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cook Time: 8-12 minutes
Yield: 2 people
12 green or white asparagus (remove the outer skin with a peeler)
Salt & sugar
1 tablespoon of black peppercorns
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
2 tablespoons Chopped parsley
2 tablespoons ice cold water
1 stick of butter
2 egg yolks
Juice of one lemon
Boil the peppercorns, wine vinegar and chopped parsley until it is reduced to almost nothing, deglaze it with 2 tablespoons of water. Run it through a sieve and pour it into a cold double boiler. Add 2 egg yolks, whisking them into the pan. Add the juice of 1/4 of a lemon, at this point put the double boiler onto medium heat and begin whisking little pieces of butter until the it has melted and thicken. Wisk constantly – this is very important. If the sauce separates, put chilled water, and if necessary add another egg yolk.
Prepare the asparagus by peeling the outer skin with a vegetable peeler. This is not necessary if you are using green asparagus, but it has to be done with the white asparagus. Remove about 1 inch of the bottom of each steam. You can simply bend the stalks and they will break at the point where the hard stalk separates from soft stalk. However, if you want all the stalks to be the same size, cut them where you think the hard stalk ends. Boil them in salted water (add a little sugar, which brings out the taste of the asparagus), for about 4-5 minutes.
Remove from the water and wrap them in a kitchen towel to finish cooking.
Pour the sauce over the cooked asparagus.