I often write about visiting my aunt and uncle’s farm when I was a child and how, every spring, we would forage for wild asparagus near the stream on the edge of the apple orchard. When I moved to Europe at 18 I was enthralled by the assortment and variety of asparagus available. The only asparagus I had ever known was that wild and wiry green variety that grew beneath the apple trees. At the markets in Pisa there were crates full of milky white asparagus, thick stalks of green asparagus with purple tips, and even a sweet variety that was entirely purple from tip to toe. How much fun I had learning to cook with them all!
Most of my time during those years was spent in the kitchen, often cooking with my neighbours as our apartment was in a very old building with one central kitchen shared by all the tenants. It was the best way to learn traditional methods and family recipes that had been passed down through the generations, though I was often teased for my American naiveté toward common European vegetables.
White asparagus is actually green asparagus that has been grown in the dark through a process of continually covering the new shoots with soil to prevent photosynthesis. It has a more delicate, nutty flavour than its green counterpart, and because it’s grown entirely underground, the outer peel is very tough. For that reason, the entire stalk needs to be peeled and then cooked very gently.
I am finally starting to see white asparagus pop up occasionally in markets here in the US, and what a treat! It’s a crime to cover it up with anything heavier than a light vinaigrette. This is a classic French preparation that can be applied to any delicate vegetable, from asparagus to leeks to cauliflower. Simply blanche the vegetables and drizzle them with a homemade vinaigrette.
White Asparagus with Vinaigrette
1 lb (450g) white asparagus
1 clove garlic, minced
2 TBSP shallot, minced
2 TBSP Pinot Grigio vinegar
1 tsp dijon
1/2 tsp sugar
1/2 tsp salt
3 TBSP extra virgin olive oil
Trim the asparagus then peel each stalk up to the tip. Place the asparagus in a skillet that’s large enough to hold all the stalks in a single layer. Cover with water and bring to a simmer. Simmer gently, 5-7 minutes, until the asparagus is tender when pierced with a knife.
Meanwhile, mix the garlic, shallots and vinegar together in a small bowl. Let set for 5 minutes, then whisk in the remaining ingredients.
When the asparagus is tender, drain and set on a serving plate. Drizzle with the vinaigrette, top with chives and serve.