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.
Photo: Ian Bartholomew
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.
Photo: Ian Bartholomew
The flavor of white asparagus is very subtle and it is most often served with a mild rich sauce, most notably Hollandaise, but the demand for variety has also brought forth recipes using all variety of cheese sauces, making for a much richer dish. Serving with Parma ham or similar charcuterie is also very popular, and it mixes up very well with seafood.
The health benefits and issues related to white asparagus are largely similar to that of green, though some studies suggest that the white variety is not as powerful in antioxidants as green. This does not deter fanciers of white asparagus, for whom this vegetable remains one of the highlights of spring.
Lemon chicken with white asparagus, brown butter and miniature onions
White asparagus might be lauded by health gurus for its low calorie count but this recipe more than makes up for this by making use of copious quantities of butter. White asparagus is a splendid vehicle for butter, and with some care taken to get some nice browning on the onions, you can create a wonderful depth of flavor. The vegetable aspect of this dish has more than enough flavor to serve as a starter without the addition of any meat.
For the vegetables:
6-8 stems white asparagus
12 tender green beans
50g unsalted butter
2 cloves garlic, minced
6-8 miniature onions, halved
300ml vegetable or chicken stock
For the chicken:
2 chicken legs
2 tbsp flour
4 slices of lemon
quarter cup dry white wine
quarter cup chicken stock
1 tbsp olive oil
50g butter, chilled and cubed
1. Peel the asparagus, removing the fibrous outer layer for at least three-quarters of its length. Remove the woody section at the base.
2. Bring a large pot of water to a boil with a generous pinch of salt. Add the asparagus to the boiling water and cook for three minutes. Remove and drain. Set aside.
3. In a large skillet melt the butter over medium heat. Add the onions and cook until the onions color and the butter turns golden brown with a nutty fragrance.
4. Add the garlic and green beans. (If the beans are not very tender, they can be blanched beforehand). Cook for two or three minutes until beans begin to soften.
5. Add the stock and asparagus and bring to a simmer, cooking for about 15 minutes until the stock has almost completely evaporated and the asparagus is very tender.
6. While the asparagus is cooking, season the chicken legs with salt. Preheat oven to 180c.
7. Heat a skillet, add olive oil and place the chicken skin side down to cook over medium heat until the skin is golden brown, about 5 minutes. Turn over, and fry other side for about 2 minutes.
8. Put the chicken legs in an oven-proof dish and place in oven for about 10 minutes or until cooked through. Turn off the oven and keep the legs warm as you prepare the other elements.
9. Place the slices of lemon in the oil of the still-hot skillet and cook over medium heat for about 2 minutes. Add the white wine, then the stock. Bring to a simmer.
10. Roll the chilled cubed butter in the flour, coating completely. Add to the simmering liquid a cube at a time, beating vigorously with a whisk. Allow the sauce to thicken then set aside.
11. Remove the chicken from the oven and pour over the lemon sauce. Serve with the asparagus.
Ian Bartholomew runs Ian’s Table, a small guesthouse in Hualien. He has lived in Taiwan for many years writing about the food scene and has decided that until you look at farming, you know nothing about the food you eat. He can be contacted at Hualien202@gmail.com.
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