White Asparagus

Spring in Paris

By | Germany, Paris | One Comment
I love the spring in Paris. It arrives much earlier than in Toronto so by mid-April I’m enjoying favas, peas, baby onions and new potatoes. I tell everyone that I come to Paris in the spring just so I can eatwhite asparagus. Well, I’ve just discovered that I may have to change my travel plans. 
This year, with in days of touching down in the city of light, I sped off on a TGV to the Frankfurt suburbs. I remember from a previous trip to Berlin, in June, just how much the Germans like white asparagus. I now realise that they don’t just like white asparagus, they are crazy about them. From mid-April to mid-June, the official asparagus season, white asparagus are everywhere; on every menu, in every market and vegetable store, and for sale at roadside stands. Everybody it seems is eating them.
I love white asparagus, they have a subtle bitterness that makes them much more complex in flavour than green ones. They are one of the vegetables that star in my new book Bitter: A Taste of the World’s Most Dangerous Flavor, with Recipes. In the book I explain how they are grown and harvested and why it makes them an expensive vegetable. I asked my friends to take me to the asparagus fields so I could see it all first hand. They took me to Schwetzingen, the capital of asparagus in this part of Germany. The main square is usually filled with farmers selling asparagus, but as this day there were only two stalls, that we later discovered were resellers. In the square is the bronze sculpture of a woman and her daughter selling asparagus pictured above. We wandered around the town and discovered an asparagus stall on a side street. We started chatting, they were selling asparagus from their farm. The older woman showed us the machine that cut and washed the newly harvested asparagus. The stalks are then grade by size, the fattest being the most expensive. She then proudly revealed that she was the grandmother of the “asparagus queen”. Her granddaughter Katharina had won the title two years in a row! I have a signed photo to prove it. We asked where we could see asparagus being harvested and she directed us to her farm.
At the end of these sandy fields we found the workers. My friends explained that we had been sent by the owner and wanted to see how they harvested the asparagus. Their words were wasted, the workers were from Poland and spoke no German. However, they were  very friendly and happy to show us how they picked the asparagus, they even let us try our hand.
Green and white asparagus are the same vegetable, white asparagus are blanched by burying the plant under a mound of sandy soil. White asparagus fields are defined by their mounds of sandy soil that are sometimes cover in plastic to protect the spears from the light. The workers prowl the fields scrutinizing the mounds, looking for any cracks in the soil. These indicate that a spear might be pushing through.  Using their hands they carefully dig into the soil to expose the spear, making sure they don’t damage any neighbouring ones. Using a metal tool with a wooden handle that resembles a chisel they cut the spear at the base. Then using a trowel they fill in the hole with the sandy soil. No high-tech equipment on this farm.
The asparagus are stacked in plastic boxes ready to be cut, washed, and graded. We bought a couple of kilos of the biggest, fattest ones, that were so fresh they squeaked when you rubbed them. The proud grandmother had told us she would not eat an asparagus that was more than 24 hours old. We ate ours that night with maltaise sauce, steamed new potatoes and lightly smoked ham, a perfect combination.
There are lots of ways to enjoy white asparagus, but perhaps the most unusual way I ate them on this trip was in an ice cream at Lohninger restaurant in Frankfurt. The dish was very pretty, the ice cream was served with a compote of rhubarb and raspberry garnished with a translucent slice of candied rhubarb.
And how did the ice cream taste? Exactly like white asparagus, but rich and creamy. It was delicious.

White Asparagus Part 2

By | Paris, white asparagus | No Comments
As I said in White Asparagus Part 1, I’d always just boiled my white asparagus. Well this asparagus season we went to Spring restaurant in Paris. My favourite taste in the meal was the grapefruit jelly for many reasons, but the white asparagus were delicious too and a revelation. Obviously  chef Daniel Rose shares my opinion that white asparagus should be big and fat, look at these beauties in the photo. You can read about Daniel and his restaurant in an article written by my friend Lesley Chesterman.
The asparagus at Spring were roasted, you can see their brown colouration and served in a shellfish sauce with sorrel leaves and toasted buckwheat. It was a great combination, however it was the idea of roasting them that hooked me. Of course I’d roasted green asparagus in the oven and even put them on the barbecue, but that was before I became an asparagus snob.
I talked to a couple of Parisian friends who pointed out that this was how Alain Passard cooked them at L’Arpège. I’ve eaten there twice, but never in the spring and perhaps never again, given the prices. Well I began with a heavy cast iron pan and butter. My husband did the trimming and peeling and I could only fit 6 fat asparagus in my pan. I added butter to the pan with a drizzle of olive oil and when the butter melted I added the asparagus. I “roasted” them turning them in the pan until they were nicely coloured, with the heat on medium. It took about  12 minutes. At this point my asparagus weren’t completely cooked, so I reduced the heat to low and covered the pan. After another 5 minutes or so, my asparagus were cooked, I tested them with a cake tester. I seasoned them with salt and pepper, added more butter to the pan, and when it began to melt, I served them with the butter and pan juices.
They were delicious, so much so I’m going to have to buy a bigger pan so I can share this treat with friends. And I guess I really pan-roasted and steamed them, if we want to be exact.

White Asparagus Part 1

By | Paris, white asparagus | 2 Comments
I’m an asparagus snob. For me asparagus are white and fat. You have to peel white asparagus, so you want something left when you finish and I’d rather eat three fat ones than half a dozen skinny ones.  When I first came to France eons ago, green asparagus, the only ones I was familiar with at the time, were no where to be found. You could find skinny wild green asparagus, but everything else is white. Today green are everywhere. To my taste white asparagus are superior to green. They are the same plant except the white ones are buried under a mound of sandy soil. This protects them from the light and stops the formation of chlorophyl resulting in a pure asparagus taste, free of the grassiness of the green ones.
One of the main reasons we come to Paris in the spring is to eat white asparagus. I just cook them, my husband does all the work. They must be trimmed at the base and carefully peeled, a small knife is the best tool. You can see how much of the stringy outside he removes, that’s why you buy fat ones.

Now there are always instructions to tie asparagus into neat bundles and steam them standing up. Well bundles are a good idea if you are cooking large numbers, and as for standing them up, how many people own a special steamer for asparagus? I usually cook 12 to 16 at a time so I let them float around in my roasting pan. The roasting pan, on an oval burner, is ideal. You can move the pan so most of the heat is concentrated to one side. (You can also do this with frying pan on a regular burner if you’re careful). Then you place the asparagus in the pan so their bases are over the heat and the tips are further away.  The tips of white asparagus are more robust than green and the stalks are uniform, which makes them easier to cook.

Put the asparagus in the pan to make sure they fit in a single layer and cover with cold water. Remove the asparagus, add about 1 teaspoon of salt and a good pinch of sugar to the pan. Bring the water to a boil, add the asparagus, bases towards the heat and lower the heat so that the water simmers. No matter what you read you need to cook white asparagus longer than green, at least 15 and maybe 25 minutes. The fatter and the older they are the longer they’ll take to cook.

Test by piercing the base of the asparagus with a cake tester, or a fine skewer. You want them cooked NOT crunchy. You also don’t want them overcooked and mushy. Pay attention.  Drain them well on a towel, to help absorb the water, and keep them warm if you plan to serve them hot. You can cook them ahead of time and reheat them in the oven.

Asparagus are often served cold with mayonnaise, or a vinaigrette. My friend Caroline makes a sauce with an egg yolk, mustard and crème fraîche, which she often “lightens” with a stiffly beaten egg white. I prefer them hot and I make a sauce maltaise, a variation on hollandaise with blood orange juice. The blood orange and white asparagus seasons overlap and they match brilliantly. This photo show another good mach for asparagus – scallops Here they are both served with a blood orange butter sauce. Just reduce the zest and juice of a blood orange down to a couple of tablespoons, add 1 tablespoon whipping cream and then whisk in about 100g of unsalted butter, making sure it emulsifies into the sauce and does not melt in.

Simmering asparagus is my main method for cooking this fabulous vegetable, but this spring I discovered another thanks to a dinner at Spring restaurant. More soon.

Kohlrabi

By | Vegetables | 9 Comments
Perhaps, like me, you’ve never given the vegetable kohlrabi a second thought, or even a first thought.  I bought it several years ago when I was food styling. It looked cool, so I tucked it into a display of artful vegetables in a photo. Did I eat it? Probably, because I hate to throw food away, but it left no memorable impression. As Grigson says in her book Jane Grigsons Vegetable Book “There are better vegetables than kohlrabi. And worse”.

While in Paris this May I went with friends to Septime, a restaurant très à la mode in the 11th arrondissement. Well this isn’t a review about the food, perhaps another time, but the first course included kohlrabi or chou-rave as I discovered it is called in French. Kohlrabi is a type of cabbage, not a celery as the French name would have it. Nor it is a turnip or a root. It is a stem is swollen into a turnip shape. The name comes from Germany where they love it.

Very thin slices covered a big fat white asparagus, that wasn’t quite cooked enough for my taste and there was a dollop of honey on the side to counteract the kohlrabi’s bitterness. The dish was interesting, not great, then I went to London. London and kohlrabi aren’t obviously related until you think of Yotam Ottolenghi.

I share a bond with Yotam, we both lost out to the fabulous Molly Stevens in the cookbook awards, so I had to see just what he was up to. I visited his Belgravia store where I fell in love with the roasted beetroot and rhubarb salad. The next day I had lunch with a friend who had picked up all the food from the same store. At lunch it was the dressing on the green salad that stole my attention. I  wanted his book, Plenty: Vibrant Vegetable Recipes From London’s Ottolenghi. I bought the original edition with weights, not cups.

His cabbage and kohlrabi salad caught my attention, see this story is going somewhere. I had all the ingredients on hand, except of course the kohlrabi. The mixture of cabbage, kohlrabi, dried sour cherries and alfalfa sprouts with lots of dill, lemon juice, olive oil, garlic salt and pepper was very good. Now I am taking kohlrabi seriously.

Grigson notes as well as being a popular in Eastern Europe, kohlrabi is beloved in Israel. That no doubt explains Yotam’s deft hand. Give it a try, but be mindful of Grigson’s advice and buy kohlrabis (yes it sounds odd but it’s one kohlrabi, two kohlrabis) sized somewhere between a golf and a tennis ball, any bigger and it will be as tough.

Paris in the spring

By | Paris, Spring | 4 Comments

The spring has started wet and cool here. Although the weather isn’t spring-like, the produce in the markets screams spring. The main reason we come to Paris at this time of the year is to eat white asparagus. These beauties were displayed with a bulb of new garlic.

White asparagus must be peeled and trimmed before cooking, and if they are thin there is nothing left, so we always buy big, fat ones. My husband has become an expert at peeling them, leaving no coarse strings behind. White asparagus must also be cooked until tender, not crunchy, and this takes time, depending on their thickness and age it can take 20 minutes or more. Simmer them in salted water with a pinch of sugar.  Test the asparagus at the thick end, I often insert a cake tester from the cut end, the whole length of the spear, if there is no resistance, I know they are ready. Drain them on a towel before serving.  For our first meal we devoured them with hollandaise and slice country ham.

Next on the menu will be white asparagus with a maltaise sauce, using the blood oranges, which are still in the market.  The other sign of spring is the bunches of peonies, one of my favourite flowers, everywhere. Here is a before and after photo of them.

The tight buds open up to reveal lighter coloured flowers that become paler as they age. I am not sure why, but peonies always make me joyful. So even as the rain falls, and the temperature barely edges into double digits I’m smiling.