Sat, Jun 09, 2018 - Page 13 News List

Ian’s Table:Creature of the dark

White asparagus is much prized in Europe and is now available from local farms in Taiwan and deserves to be celebrated for its great quality and flavor

By Ian Bartholomew  /  Contributing Reporter

White asparagus has more than enough cachet to be served as the main event, but can also serve to enhance simple dishes like this chicken with lemon sauce.

Photo: Ian Bartholomew

It is now the height of the asparagus season and it would be remiss not to trumpet the claims of the excellent locally grown varieties that are now hitting the market shelves. Taiwan farmers have achieved wonders in the last few years and quality rivals that of European and American imports. This is particularly the case with white asparagus, the ultimate luxury vegetable, which is available from excellent farms in areas around Yunlin and is currently making an appearance in Hualien, among other new locations.

In truth, I have been wary of locally grown asparagus, having had some bad experiences with excessively fibrous or bitter tasting plants. This year, presented with bunches of thick, ivory-skinned asparagus from local farms, I couldn’t resist, and discovered just how very good they were. White asparagus does not keep well at the best of times, and while one can accept that transshipment technology is pretty amazing these days, nothing ever really beats fresh.

White asparagus is not different from the usual green asparagus, but is created through a labor intensive process of protecting the shoots from the sun so that they do not undergo photosynthesis. Exposure to the sun leads to the production of chlorophyll, which turns the shoots green. For the production of white asparagus, soil is piled over the shoots so that they remain underground, and it is this labor, and the greater effort required to harvest these “buried” shoots, that accounts for the high cost of white asparagus. However, leave them on the kitchen counter once you get them home from the market on a sunny day, and you will have green asparagus in no time.

White asparagus should be protected from sunlight with great care. Their aversion to sunlight has even earned them a reputation for being the vampires of the vegetable kingdom. If you have the good fortune to obtain some nice plump shoots of white asparagus from the market, use them as soon as possible, and if you must store them, wrap them well in newspaper, then a plastic bag and keep in the fridge.

The extent to which you need to peel asparagus can be a fraught question, with some types requiring virtually no peeling, while others need to have a thick outer layer removed. White asparagus has a thick and inedible fibrous exterior and this should be thoroughly cut away. While quick cooking is often the rule for green asparagus, to ensure a delightful crispness of texture, the white variety generally requires longer cooking, with soft, luscious texture being the key element. While there are no hard and fast rules, I find that blanching the asparagus in salted boiling water to be a good preparation for using these shoots in almost any dish. Some authorities also demand a subsequent soaking in ice water, but I do not see the point in this.

White asparagus is probably more of a European specialty, and can often be found pickled in delicatessens as part of the vast array of Mediterranean preserved vegetables. I have never seen the appeal of those ivory storks in sour pickling brine, so anemic and ghostly, but this is an understandable response to the relatively short season for fresh white asparagus. For cooked asparagus, the most traditional method of preparation is in an emulsion of meat or vegetable stock and butter, though in this more health-conscious age, steaming is often preferred.

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