If you asked me up front what my favorite thing about spring and early summer is, I’d probably tell you “asparagus… and girls in summer dresses… In no particular order!” Things like grilling, beers on the lawn and seemingly endless nights might come into play as well, but no, I’m pretty sure if you asked me right now I’d go with asparagus, and the girls. The former because of my seasonal, locavore foodie lifestyle, the latter because, well, I’m a 32-year-old male, y’know? Either one of the above and I’d be pretty well chuffed, offer me both and I’d be ecstatic!
So, when my friend Tina invited herself over for dinner right at the peak of spring and asparagus season, and furthermore insisted on bringing along backup in the shape of mutual friends Emelie and Malene, you can probably imagine how I went on to protest profusely. Err, and by protesting profusely, I mean something along the lines of dropping to my knees and thanking our God and maker before rushing out to find something new and exciting to cook involving my other favorite thing about spring, asparagus. Possibly something a little extravagant to match the company that had been bestowed upon me.
“Wait? What?”, I hear you say, I” get the fascination with the beautiful girls and all… But asparagus? Really?”
Yes, very good question, that! Allow me to simply answer with a: Yes, asparagus, really! I love asparagus, and I’m not afraid to admit it. In fact, I’m not alone. Danes, essentially, are obsessed with asparagus, it’s one of our favorite and most treasured things about spring and a perfect reason for someone like me to go a little overboard and create a lavish dish that matched my company for the evening: simple yet beautiful, and a little over the top.
Asparagus, a Danish spring time obsession
No, really, why is something as humble as asparagus such a great deal around these parts? Well, as with so many other things in life, it’s got a little to do with location, location and location. Owing to Denmark’s unique location, we’re blessed with some lengthy, bright and reasonably warm summer months, but we’re equally cursed with long, dreary and unreasonably dark winters. Winters in which nothing really grows and in which we have to rely on imported greens, stored root vegetables or fruits, or vegetables grown in greenhouses under artificial lighting.
It’s some pretty not-good times but all this changes literally from one moment to the other with the arrival of spring and it’s most prominent messenger. When the first delicate and crisp asparagus shoots, along with new potatoes by the way, make their way out of the ground to claim their throne as the first crops of the new year, thereby signaling a return to abundance of fresh herbs, homegrown vegetables and the like Danes go mad for the taste of asparagus! Unbelievably fresh and tasty, full of flavor and of life, they truly are a messenger of spring and of many more good, local eats to come.
Asparagus, when in season, arrive from out of nowhere, take us by storm and make their way into basically everything we eat. Even desserts! We live on them, thrive on them and spend entirely too much money on them. Until Midsummer arrives and the season closes as abruptly as it began. Granted, by then most of us will have eaten so many asparagus that we’re basically looking at each other going “maybe it’s a good thing the season doesn’t last longer. In fact, I kinda wish it would be a little shorter next year!”
Luckily, though, midsummer is a long way away and I’m still snacking on Danish asparagus. Not daily, but at least a couple of times a week. They’re just so gorgeous, sweet, tasty and abundant right now… And unlike their counterparts from around the world, some of them are white too!
White asparagus: Edible Gold
I realize that our foreign visitors, especially those from the UK or the US may be sitting with a bit of a perplexed look on their faces now. Asparagus are green, right? Yes, indeed, in the UK, the US, South American and, well, most places around the world, asparagus are indeed green. In Northern Continental Europe, though, unless clearly specified as green, asparagus are usually sold as large, pearly white, slightly woody spears, known simply (and fittingly) as edible gold or white gold!
White asparagus, white gold! Photo credit @4garcons on instagram.com
But don’t look scared now. A white asparagus in essence is exactly the same breed of animal as a green asparagus. In other words, they’re exactly the same plant only they’re grown in two very different ways. While green asparagus are allowed to sprout freely from the ground, white asparagus are grown completely in the dark, and it’s this very absence of light that is to blame for the difference in color, texture and taste.
As a matter of fact, white asparagus are grown through a process known as hilling in which soil is continuously piled on top of the asparagus as they grow. A difficult and time-consuming process as it is, this way of growing does have some distinct advantages: The absence of light prohibits photosynthesis, the process which turns asparagus and other plants green. This makes for an often much larger and sturdier, completely white, pearly asparagus spear with a thick skin which must be peeled off before consuming and a woody bottom which must likewise be removed. This thick skin, however, hides a silky soft, much sweeter, less bitter and much more flavorful asparagus experience than you’ll ever get with any green asparagus.
Save those peelings! When peeling white asparagus, never throw away the skins, or the bottoms for that matter. They contain an intense asparagus aroma and taste that can be easily harvested by simmering them in water, stock, milk or cream. To create an asparagus infused liquid that can form the base of a great cream of asparagus soup or similar. More on that later
The taste of white asparagus, while often scoffed at by people not in the know, is considered by most culinarily interested Northern Europeans to be far superior to those of its more popular green cousin – with pretty good reason, I might add. They’re so sweet, so tender, so spring, oh screw it, I can’t explain… Look, if you’ve never had fresh, white asparagus, you owe it to yourself to at least once try to seek them out and give them a taste. All they need is a quick peeling and a quick boil or simmer and they’ll reward you with one of the cleanest, simplest yet sweetest and most satisfying tastes of the early summer. If you haven’t already, give them a try and you’ll know what we mean by edible gold, and why we treasure them as one of the simplest yet finest ingredients available at this time of the year.
Obtaining white asparagus? If you’re not from Continental Northern Europe, you may only be familiar with canned white asparagus which, sadly, are a pretty far cry from the real thing. One of the upsides to globalization, though, is that even slightly obscure pieces of produce can be made available fresh all over the world within one or two days after harvest. This means that you can and should get a hold of fresh, white asparagus pretty much all over the world. You may have to look or ask around a while, maybe even take to the internet. But it’s possible and totally worth it for the unique experience. Obviously, this is not something I condone doing on a larger scale, because it puts a horrible strain on our planet. But fudge it, sometimes you gotta live a little!
And that’s all fine and well, of course, but how, pray tell does one go about preparing them, and what does one eat with them? Well, I set out to find out, and in the process create a decadent dish worthy of the star player: the short-lived luxury that is fresh, local, white asparagus.
Perfect partners: Asparagus and sauce Mousseline
White asparagus need very little in terms of preparation. A little butter in a pan, in with the peeled asparagus, add a little salt and a splash of water and steam away till tender. Easy, simple, great! That could have been it, really, but I wanted to kick it up a notch and added some sauce and spice to the mix.
Because they’re softer and less bitter than your average green asparagus, white asparagus play extremely well with creamy buttery sauces such, well, butter… or mayonnaise, or mayo’s hot, butter-based cousin Hollandaise, or just a light cream sauce… No, I know, better yet, make it all of the above! I mean, really, if you can have butter, Hollandaise and cream in one setting, why settle for less? And, as I recalled when composing this peculiar little dish, you can in fact have all in one with a peculiar French, classic sauce known as Sauce Mousseline!
Sauce Mousseline, essentially, is a Hollandaise carefully mixed with gently whipped cream. Yes, you heard that correctly: it’s eggs, butter and heavy cream, and no, it’s not particularly Weight Watcher’s friendly. It is very, very decadent, though, and very, very good. Since my girls (bless them!) generally aren’t scared of a bit of cream and butter, I knew it was just the thing. A silky smooth decadent sauce for some silky smooth asparagus spears.
But I couldn’t just leave it at that, no. We all know me by now. I either go over the top or I go home. Since I was already home on the day in question, I figured I might as well go over the top, so for the purpose of this recipe, I added a bit of bubbles (a quarter bottle of Blanc de Blancs to be exact) to the sauce mix along with some extra asparagus flavor that I infused into the cream out of the skin and bottoms of the white asparagus I had peeled for the evening. What I ended up with, essentially, was a “Champagne and asparagus Sauce Mousseline”.
Scared of Hollandaise? Homemade Hollandaise (or other emulsified sauces) are easier to make at home than you think. For a bit of extra information, help and comforting words of encouragement, why not check out my post on Sauce Bearnaise?
Oh and I also made a little hazelnut browned-butter that I cooked up because I found myself with a little left over butter and I thought it a sin not to use a full half pound of butter in a starter. Right?
Another touch of luxury: Pata Negra, the World’s best ham!
It should have ended there, of course, the dish was already plenty over the top. But again, I couldn’t help myself. I somehow kept telling myself that I wanted a minuscule meat component for my dish. And with the silky asparagus, the heavy creamy, buttery sauces and the toasted nuts, I wanted something with depth and character, Something cured or smoky, something intense that would stand up to the rest of the flavors, something that would shine through, and something that would match the decadence of the other ingredients.
I thought about it long and hard (actually, no I didn’t) and for my meat component, I finally ended up picking a few slices of gorgeous cured ham. But not just any ham, no, I went with Jamón Ibérico ham, or Pata Negra ham if you will. A specialty ham from Spanish acorn-fed pigs that star chef Heston Blumenthal humorously and fittingly describes as “only the best ham in the world.”
Pata Negra ham in all its simple glory! Photo credit @giovannidesandre on instagram.com
Jamón Ibérico is made from a special breed of pig called Black Iberian pig that live mainly in southern parts of Spain. These particular pigs are fed on a diet of barley and maize until they are old enough to freely roam around pastures and oak groves to feed exclusively on grass, wild herbs and acorn. When they’ve had a long, happy life doing so and slaughter time approaches, the pigs are fed a special diet consisting only of acorns and olives until the fateful day comes when they sacrifice their lives for foodies the world around. After slaughtering the hams are salted and left to dry, then rinsed and left to dry again. After that, they’re cured for at least twelve months, but some producers, including the one I sourced my stuff from, cure them for up to 48 months.
The result of this amazingly complicated production process is an amazingly beautiful, smoothly textured, bright red and rich, savory tasting ham with a high fat content and absolutely gorgeous marbling. And an amazingly expensive piece of ham, of course. But with a world-class product that takes four years to produce, not counting the raising of the pigs, what would you expect? And it’s worth every penny! This is like well-made Parma ham, only a thousand times better and at least twice as expensive. No, put it this way: If there were a Kobe beef of the pig world, this would be it. That’s how amazingly tender, sweet, flavorful and full of wonderful marbling this product is!
This illusive product is something I’ve been hunting down next to forever. Pata Negra, actually, has been on the top of my foodie wish list for a long time now. Mine as well as those of many other foodies, I’m sure. When finally I had the chance to order some online at skagenfood.dk, I jumped the gun and ordered some up without even stopping to consider the price. All I know is I wanted to try it, and once I’d tried it, I needed a proper occasion to serve it up!
With the girls coming over, the first Danish white asparagus in the house and a decadent feast already taking place on our plates, what could possibly be a better occasion? I for one, didn’t know, so I threw some Jamón Ibérico in the mix and this is what I eventually came up with as a tribute to my company, Danish spring and all things decadent:
White Asparagus, Pata Negra Ham & Champagne Mousseline
For steamed asparagus and browned butter sauce:
- 8-12 large white asparagus
- One handful of hazelnuts roughly chopped
- 50 grams of butter
For Sauce Mousseline:
- 250 milliliters of Champagne or other dry sparkling wine
- 250 milliliters of heavy cream
- 200 grams of butter melted
- One large shallot
- One large egg yolk
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Freshly squeezed lemon juice to taste
For ham component:
- 4-8 slices of Pata Negra ham substitute Parma Ham for a less posh and more affordable experience
- Cut the fibrous bottoms off the asparagus. Reserve the bottoms
- Using a vegetable peeler, carefully peel asparagus starting from the head and moving towards the bottom. Reserve peels.
- Wrap asparagus in a damp piece of kitchen towel or similar, put in a plastic bag and put in the fridge until ready to use.
- In a small sauce pan add asparagus peelings and bottoms, pour in cream, turn heat on to low and slowly bring cream to a gentle simmer.
- Once simmering, leave to simmer for about fifteen minutes, then turn off heat and let cool.
- Once mixture is cool, strain into a suitable container. You'll probably be left with about 200 milliliters of asparagus infused cream.
Making the sauce:
- In a sauce pan, dump the shallot along with the Champagne, turn heat to medium and bring to a boil.
- Gently boil Champagne mixture until reduced by at least 2/3, kill the heat, strain out the shallots and return liquid to the sauce pan to cool.
- Once liquid has cooled to room temperature or there about, add the egg yolk turn burner on to the lowest possible setting and start whisking the egg yolk.
- Whisk yolk for about a minute until light and fluffy, then start gradually whisking in the melted butter. Go a few drops at the time for starters, then gradually start pouring at a slow, steady stream all while whisking constantly. Basically as if you were making a mayonnaise or Bearnaise.
- When all the butter has been incorporated, stir in a bit of salt, freshly ground pepper and lemon juice followed by about 100 milliliters of the asparagus infused cream.
- Allow sauce to warm through slowly, but kill the heat before the eggs even think about curdling, taste again for seasoning - it may need more salt, pepper and lemon.
- Keep sauce pan on the warm burner to keep sauce warm while you steam the asparagus.
Making the asparagus:
- In a non-stick pan over medium heat, add a small knob of butter and let melt. Once melted, add the asparagus, sprinkle generously with salt and fry for a minute or so, turning every now and then.
- After about a minute, add a splash of water to pan and let the asparagus steam for a few minutes.
- The asparagus are done as soon as they're tender and give way easily to the teeth of a fork,
- As soon as this happens, move them to a plate and cover to keep warm, add remaining butter to the pan along with the hazelnuts and cook for a few minutes till butter is nicely browned and a wonderful nutty, toasty aroma fills the kitchen.
- Lay a couple of asparagus per diner on a plate, spoon over some of the hazelnut browned butter and a few nuts.
- Put a slice or two of Iberian ham next to the asparagus.
- Generously add Sauce Mousseline on the side.
- Serve with Champagne, other bubbly or a crisp white Riesling or Sauvignon Blanc.
If you're any good with math and attention to detail, you may realize that we used only half of the asparagus infused cream. You could use more if you like, or you can save the remainder. It makes for a kicking addition to a cream of asparagus soup!
I served up the dish to a couple of very hungry, very curious and very pleased diners, who prodded at things curiously before eventually having a taste and coming up with a verdict, and what a verdict it was! (lucky me!)
I think I’ve just gone and taken something that looked and sounded relatively simple and turned it into something surprisingly complex full of contrasts and little extra steps. But upon having served this up to delighted co-diners, allow me to mangle the immortal words of Édith Piaff with my piss poor French pronunciation: “Je ne regrette rein!”
Asparagus, while mainly sweet and succulent do have some very light nutty notes to then, notes that are beautifully accented by a bit of chopped nuts and a hit of brown butter. And while arguably not much to look at on their own, the mere humble aura of decadence that surround fresh, local, white asparagus create a certain feel that make them go down extremely well with the equally decadent, rich, creamy and slightly tangy “Champagne Sauce Mousseline” as well as the even more decadent, even more rare and even more ridiculously expensive Pata Negra ham.
The various components fuse together to form a dish that is at one time simple yet complex, unimposing yet decadent, soft yet crunchy, creamy yet light, utterly simple to look at and yet absolutely bursting with deep intense flavors. It is, to Europeans at least, both familiar yet entirely new.
From a culinary standpoint, it’s probably one of the most schizophrenic dishes I’ve ever cooked, but if I dare say so myself also one of the better in recent memory. In this case, opposites do attract! Which, I suppose, also goes to explain why three such beautiful young ladies would choose to spend their Saturday evening in the company of this kitchen troll 😉
Have you ever had white asparagus? If not, I hope I’ve inspired you to give this spring delicacy a go!