White Gold

 Still Life with Asparagus by Adriaen Coorte, 1697
Still Life with Asparagus by Adriaen Coorte, 1697

This is a guest post from fellow food writer Karen Eve Johnson, who lives in Amsterdam.

I have always adored asparagus. Even as a child I could eat any amount, picking up the delicious green spears, unadorned by anything but butter. I absorbed the correct mode of consumption — each delectable spear held at the base, grazing from top to the possibly too tough toe — along with the green vegetable itself. I still feel faintly shocked when I see someone attack the green stuff with a knife & fork! Old-fashioned, I know. Manners from a by-gone age, swept away along with outmoded worries about picking up the right item of cutlery.

But, autre temps, autre moeurs. My life took me to Amsterdam. And here, in its season, white asparagus is king.

My local market is in the Nieuwmarkt, an old square beside the Waag. With its towers and turrets, the Waag looks like a Disney palace but it was actually the eastern entrance to the old city, part of the old city walls in the 15th century.  Beyond it to the east lay warehouses and shipyards.

The Waag and the market in the Nieuwmarkt in 1902. Jacob Olie, from the Amsterdam City Archive

The island where I live used to be the Jewish quarter, since even in the tolerant Lowlands, the Jews lived outside the city gates. The Waag then served as a weighing house (waag means to weigh) for goods passing in and out of the city . The building also housed the offices of various Guilds, including the Surgeons Guild. There is a dissection room in one of those Disney towers, and it was there that Rembrandt painted Dr Tulp (which is the Dutch word for tulip) dissecting a man. The Waag is now a cafe, and you can take your coffee imagining the dissections upstairs.

The main food market in the Nieuwmarkt takes place on Saturday, when we have a wonderful choice of breads, cheeses, vegetables, mushrooms and so forth. At other times there may be book stalls, or jewellery stalls, or small fairs and festivals. But on an average weekday, the square is relatively bare. There are a few stalls on one side, selling flowers for locals, and wooden tulips and mini-gouda for tourists.

Traders setting up their stalls for the Saturday market in the Nieuwmarkt

And there is one glorious stall, run by the same family for decades. I have watched the daughters grow up, to be joined by young men. But still, gloriously, presided over by the same Amsterdam lady. They keep an extraordinary variety of fruit, vegetables and herbs. If you cannot get it there, you probably cannot get it anywhere in Amsterdam. This lady, noting my love of green asparagus and shiitake mushrooms, recommended the following combination: braise the asparagus in a little butter, add the shiitake (pulled into pieces), let them cook together until the shiitake are soft, and voila – a delicious dish.

But in this city (and everywhere in the Lowlands) the excitement is not for green asparagus, but for white. Come the season, and people queue to buy the big fat spears. Size matters. Spindly white asparagus gives no satisfaction.

I was, and remain, a fervent fan of the green stuff, but I have come to honour the white as well. Do not dismiss it on the basis of the limp tasteless flaccid beast served out of jars to give a false distinction to an indifferent restaurant dish.

When I first came to the Lowlands, I was served fresh white asparagus in the local style. Again, a recipe of extreme simplicity. With white asparagus it is essential to peel off the bitter outer skin before cooking it. (At my local stall, they will do this for you, but I doubt you will find a greengrocer so accommodating elsewhere, and in any case, this is a simple task.) The asparagus is then boiled or steamed as you would the green, but it takes longer. And, while I prefer my green with a bit of crunch, the white should definitely be on the soft side.

My attempt at a still life, with all the ingredients required for preparing asparagus in the traditional Dutch way...
My attempt at a still life, with all the ingredients required for preparing asparagus in the traditional Dutch way…
White Asparagus, dutch-style – Preparation  time, 30-40 minutes, serves as many as you like depending on quantity of asparagus.
Ingredients

Per person: 4 – 5 white asparagus spears
2 hard-boiled eggs
2 thin slices of lean ham
flat parsley
generous melted butter
a squeeze of lemon juice

Serve with Jersey Royal new potatoes

Method

Peel the asparagus, taking off the skin almost to the top of the spears. Remove any woody parts from the lower stems. Cook in boiling water, or in a steamer if you prefer. (See Judi’s and Fiona’s notes on methods for cooking asparagus here).

Meanwhile chop the ham very fine. Grate the eggs so that you have an elegant pile of yellow and white shavings. Chop the parsley very fine.

When cooked, drain the asparagus and allow to cool slightly. Place the asparagus on the plate with a few jersey royal or other tasty new potatoes on the side. Beside them place the ham and grated eggs and parsley in a layered mound or in side-by-side mounds — whatever you find most aesthetic and appealing.

Pour the melted butter, enhanced with the squeeze of lemon, generously over the asparagus, and (if you wish) finish with an additional sprinkling of the parsley. A grind of the pepper pot adds another note and nuance, if, like me, your taste runs to that.   Serve.

The lucky recipient gets to mix together the butter, ham, parsley and egg in the proportions  that please their palette. The whole is a delicious flavour melange of richness and salt and herb which marries beautifully with the delicate flavour of the white asparagus. Each forkful offers a variation. And note: forkful. Fingers will not do the trick here.

 White asparagus, Dutch style
White asparagus, Dutch style

A dear friend of mine offers a variation on this traditional melange. The asparagus and potatoes are prepared as before, but she soft-boils her eggs (for about 3.5 minutes). The warm egg flesh is mashed  by fork together with a generous amount of soft butter. Finely chopped parsley, a few drops of lemon juice, a light grating of nutmeg and salt & pepper finish it off. You then dollop this over the hot asparagus and potatoes.

Serve with thinly sliced good baked ham, or prosciutto, or both. Or, indeed, with smoked salmon. The delicate flavour of the asparagus, eggs and butter marry well with the salmon.

And with my friend’s variation...
And with my friend’s variation…
White, Green, and Purple…

Another delicious way to use white asparagus is simply peeled, sliced and added to a salad. The taste is somewhat like fresh raw peas, but with a crunch. And without the mealiness you sometimes get with peas. I love it in salads, but when, as a child, I was asked to pod the peas from my grandmother’s garden, I ate more of the sweet raw morsels than ended up in the pot. In the season, I often serve white asparagus on its own or with other crudités as a healthy pre-meal nibble.

Green asparagus is also best in simplest recipes, warm with melted butter, or at room temperature with a simple dressing of grassy olive oil, lemon juice and a little salt. But I confess to a weakness for asparagus risotto and for penne with asparagus, cream and parmesan. Although white asparagus can make delicious white soup, a white asparagus risotto does not appeal. Green brings more vigour. And, of course, colour.

And  green and white will soon be joined by a new colour.

Purple Asparagus
Purple Asparagus

I have never tasted purple asparagus, but (as with the purple cow) I do hope one day to see one and moreover (unlike with the purple cow) look forward to enjoying and ingesting it. A brief survey of the internet produced only a few sellers, but judging by the number of purple asparagus roots on offer, we will soon find them in the shops. The purple asparagus originated (I am told) in Italy and is sweeter in flavour than the white or green varieties. I shall ask my lady of the Nieuwmarkt if she can hunt some down for me. If anyone can, she can.

Karen Eve Johnson

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