I could always subscribe to those cultures whose beginning of the New Year coincides with the beginning of spring, as I could never really find that dead-dark 4 1/2-hour days, turbid weather and the peak of the winter blues herald the beginning of anything, let alone a new year. So only when days are getting longer again, thick winter gloves and scarfs get pushed back in the drawer of your dresser and you optimistically venture into sporting nothing but a light t-shirt and jeans jacket – at least during the warmest hours of the day – do I feel that a new year is slowly settling in. But it is really not until that day when the unsurpassable, incomparable and certainly most German of all vegetables – the white asparagus – finally starts pushing its ivory colored head through the sandy soil it grows on that I feel that I may accept the fact that spring time has now arrived.
So as the market stands selling the „white gold“ start popping up all over town, weighed down by the somewhat funny looking white or slightly lilac spears, always accompanied by its inevitable fellow-fruit – the first new potatoes of the year and strawberries from the field – the hunt is on! Which means: the hunt for the best asparagus spears in town. Naturally.
So given that asparagus is such a popular food in Germany and whereas, at the same time, there seems to be really just the one way of how to consume it traditionally, it seems – admittedly – a bit boring and maybe unnecessary to post a recipe here. I am doing it anyway. On the one hand, to honor the arrival of my favorite vegetable. On the other, for those of you whose German mother did not painstakingly peel and then boil white asparagus for the family lunch every Sunday between mid-April and mid/end of June throughout their entire childhood. Finally, to honor my mother for having done so – and her actually rather innovative asparagus sauce. At least, I have seen this asparagus sauce nowhere else.
I do feel the need to drop another word or two here on this: My mother, pursuing a full-time career while raising two children was an oddity at her own time. So were husbands and/or fathers who would help with the tasks of keeping house and childcare – so, following the trend of the time, my mother ended up having to pursue these tasks beside her career without any assistance from the male members of the family. Somewhat naturally, my mother thus saw cooking from a more practical view-point – something that had to be integrated into the busy working day while pleasing the rather demanding members of the family, not as a private passion to pursue endlessly, scouring cook-books, hunting ingredients, and traveling the world in search of new culinary horizons. Recipes had to be easy, practical, and Dr. Oetker and Pfanni were welcomed helpers on the kitchen shelves.
Having done my fair share of cook-book scouring, ingredient hunting and traveling the world, I am still serving my asparagus with my mother’s simple asparagus sauce. Not because I did not try anything else. I did. I whipped up the creamiest sauces hollandaises imaginable, I tried to drench my asparagus in melted butter, I ventured into modern parmesan sauces, and a number of suggestions resembling vinaigrettes more than anything else, and I always ended up with my mother’s sauce being the one I liked most. – And I am not alone in this. Cyrus always asks for this sauce. Anything else just will not do. So here it goes: White asparagus with my mother’s asparagus sauce.
How to pick the best asparagus
- Asparagus should be be day-fresh (tagesfrisch), i.e. harvested on the same day as it is consumed.
- Spears should neither be too thick nor too thin.
- The asparagus should be perfectly white, and the tips should be closed. If the asparagus is not white through and through, it is already old or inferior in quality. Grayish/yellowish coloring and bits give away inferior quality.
- Fresh asparagus has moist cuts and a shiny skin. Always check the bottom ends of the asparagus. Market stands sometimes cover the ends – not necessarily in order cheat, but also to keep the asparagus moist, but do not be too trusting. Check!
- Fresh asparagus certainly does not bend, it breaks. However, it may be testing your merchant’s patience a bit to hard trying to do so. If you believe that the test may be required, you are probably already best advised to keep on searching for more convincing ware.
Ingredients (for 2 people):
- 1 kg of white German asparagus (day-fresh)
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- 200 ml of cooking white wine
- 1/2 kg of new potatoes (choose a waxy type of potato, like Annabelle, Anais, or – very nice – Bamberger Hörnchen)
- 100 grams of butter
- hickory salt (Rauchsalz)
- 1/2 bundle of fresh dill
- 4 slices of cured ham (I suggest a smoked, strong-tasting ham, like Black Forest or South Tirolian ham)
- 4 slices of cooked ham (e.g. juniper wood smoked ham)
- Wash the unpeeled potatoes and place in a pot. Cover with water and bring to the boil. Depending on the size of the potatoes, boil for approximately 40 to 60 minutes until soft.
- Use a large pot or a steamer, fill with water and bring to the boil. You can boil the asparagus either directly in the water in which case it should be covered with water completely or in steam. Add salt and sugar (the addition of sugar is important to remove the bitterness from the asparagus). Add the white wine.
- Peel the asparagus. I recommend an economy peeler, but then – everybody has their preferred technique. If necessary, cut any woody/hard/brown ends. Be careful, peeling asparagus takes a bit of practice. If you have never done it, you may break a spear or two before you fully master it – it happens. Make sure you peel the asparagus properly, any remaining skin is rather unpleasant in your dish.
- Once the water is boiling, add the asparagus. Do not add it to the cold water, or it will loose taste. It usually needs between 20 to 30 minutes to boil. Boil until soft.
- Melt the butter, e.g. over the boiling asparagus. Do not put it on direct heat, and do not let it brown. Add hickory salt (approximately 1 to 2 teaspoons) and the finely chopped dill.
- Peel the potatoes once they are soft and keep warm.
- When the asparagus is soft, take it out of the water or steamer (do not throw away the cooking water), let drip off and deploy it on individual plates.
- For the sauce, add the water used to boil the asparagus to the melted butter (approximately 200 to 250 ml of it).
- Enjoy your asparagus together with the potatoes, ham, potatoes – and my mother’s asparagus sauce 🙂