Well, no one has mentioned it, as far as I know…but didja know that we are living through The Great Asparagus Apostasy?
And I am happy to be alive!
Betrayal. Conversion. More butter on your fingers than you ever imagined!
Once upon a time…just six years ago, actually…you could count on asparagus being green in the U.S., and asparagus being white in Europe. Americans thought white asparagus was something effete you’d never see here (other than in an expensive jar), and Europeans thought thoughts like “those insouciant Yanks…they don’t know how to grow an asparagus stalk with sophistication.”
Of course we are talking about the exact same vegetable. It’s just that Americanos expose the plant (like most plants) to the sun, allowing it to develop its full chlorophyll, which turns it green…and Europeans traditionally DON’T. The French, Belgians, Germans, Italians, Spaniards, etc. block that sunlight by a variety of means, such as mounding dirt around the asparagus stalks breaking through the ground, and…voila!…these stalks never turn green, remaining forever alabaster-ish.
Is there a gastronomic difference?
You bet! Vive la difference! They’re like two different vegetables!
We all grew up with that kind of, well, green taste that green asparagus have. Slightly herbal…like New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc…which is often compared to green asparagus!
But the other taste, the white one, is completely different. There is no green-ish flavor dimension. To me, white asparagus taste more like corn, or sweet cabbage…sometimes with a sophisticated touch of bitterness.
The two cultures traditionally emphasize these intrinsic differences by the way the stalks are cooked. We in the U.S…at least the chefs of this generation…go for quick cooking on the green asparagus. We like to keep the bright green color, and the bright green flavor. For many American diners, if the stalks don’t have some “snap” to them…something is wrong! They’re overcooked!
In Europe, they go full-on with the boiling water; white aspargus is cooked until it’s tender, which brings out more of that cabbage-y kind of taste. I was at a massive asparagus feast in Austria a few years back, at a winery, where we lucky attendees helped ourselves to steaming-hot white asparagus on the buffet table. There must have been 20 of us, and 500 stalks of asparagus…all sitting in hot water, all limp and tender, all delicious. You will find the same degree of doneness at a three-star restaurant, glammed up with sauces and add-ons.
But another long-held distinction concerns the size of asparagus. When I was growing up in New York, my ahead-of-the-curve Dad (or seriously behind-the-curve Dad) liked his green asparagus fat (and long-cooked). With the dawn of the rabbit-decades (1970s and 1980s), most Americans came to believe that pencil-thin asparagus are the cat’s meow (cooked very briefly, of course). Oh…most Americans didn’t notice that these wispy stalks had no flavor at all, a charge that still sticks.
In Europe, the choice never wavered: big, fat white asparagus, for relatively long cooking; if the stalks are really fat (like 8 or 10 to a pound), they may take as long as half-an-hour in simmering water to reach the right stage of tenderness and flavor.
So…back to the main narrative…and my epiphanal cross-cultural asparagus moment in 2007.
I was preparing for a May trip to France, dreaming of the white asparagus to come….when I received a box of new produce from Farmer Jones on the coast of Lake Erie, in Ohio. “Dave!” he wrote in a note. “I want you to try the white asparagus we’re growing…it’s the hottest thing for our chef-customers!” And there they were, a new era expressed in long, white stalks.
If you were cool in America in May, 2007…you were serving white asparagus, not green.
I flew to Paris the next day, with reservations at L’Ami Louis, the controversial Parisian bistro where you pay whatever they ask forthat is sometimes brilliant, sometimes sloppy as hell. “Tonight we have asparagus as a first course,” said Monsieur. Of course I wanted them. 55 Euros for an appetizer portion? Sure, what the hell, this is L’Ami Louis….and I needs me asperges blanches! When the (7!) spears came out, they were, how shall I say…green! “Green?” I asked, incredulously, at this stodgy temple of non-trendy cooking. “Ah oui,” said Monsieur. “Ze green are bett-AIR.”
If you were cool in France in May, 2007…you were serving green asparagus, not white.
And so it has gone. Every cool restaurant you go to now in the U.S. is offering green, white or both. Every cool restaurant you go to now in France is offering green, white or both.
The border has been breached!
Of course…I’m happy to add, traditionalist that I am…plenty of places in Europe still hew to white, especially rural places in northern Europe (if you’ve never been to a spargel fest in Germany…put it on your bucket list!) But we are definitely in a new era of asparagus variety, not determined by borders.
In fact, one of the best asparagus dishes I’ve had this year was created by one of the trendiest chefs in America, Daniel Humm, at his pistol-hot NoMad in New York City. Take a look at this dish, which you may think is a new-fangled combo of green and white:
However, the reality is this: it’s green only! Only someone as cool and trendy as Humm is willing to go “retro” in a cool and trendy restaurant…which in this case, in America, means green only! However, responding to the clarion call for asparagus variety, Humm has ingeniously cooked the green asparagus in the dish two ways: steamed AND grilled, creating the impression of two different asparagus types!
For me, in conclusion, I’m lovin’ the new availability of white asparagus in the U.S. This spring I was able to find them whenever I wanted them; unfortunately, none of it (so far) has been local (Peru was my top source for white asparagus in New York). The local green ones are coming in and, Europhile though I may be…I still loves me a huge pile of greenies, on a family-style platter, dripping with melted butter, sprinkled with good salt, eaten with the fingers (which French etiquette books say is the way to go).
But for me there are two provisos, even for greens: buy ‘em fat, and cook ‘em enough for the flavor to develop! Don’t even think about that 1980s two-minute abomination!