While we quietly await the start of the Ontario asparagus season, expected around Mother’s Day, the rest of the world is celebrating these tasty spears with gusto.
Residents of Stockton, California, are gearing up for the city’s annual asparagus festival starting April 26. Last year, cooks in Asparagus Alley deep-fried more than 38,000 scrumptious orders of jumbo green spears.
In northern Italy, restaurants in the Verona area have already published their asparagus menus for the next month — peering out from risotto or homemade tagliatelle noodles, puréed into velvety soups and even candied in tarts.
But the most frenzied festivities take place in Germany, where white asparagus is king and where young girls dream of becoming a Spargelkönigin or Asparagus Queen.
Anyone who’s visited Germany in May will recall the mild taste and smooth texture of the thick white stalks, perhaps served with a fried egg on top or napped with golden hollandaise sauce.
You don’t need a plane ticket to enjoy this seasonal delicacy. In fact, there are three white asparagus farms within a few hours of Toronto.
For more than 20 years, Leasa and Dutch-born Peter Janssen of Janssen Produce Inc. in Simcoe have mounded sandy soil over roots imported from Holland and waited for cracks to appear in the spring, a sign their thick, juicy spears are ready for harvesting with a special knife.
“The flavour is completely different from green asparagus,” says Leasa Janssen. “It’s sweeter and mellow and unbelievably good in a bowl of soup.”
At certified organic Mazak Farms, just outside St. Thomas, Sarah Harrison and husband Barry grow the green Jersey Giant variety under hoods instead of underground — both methods are incredibly labour-intensive — to produce their aristocratic white stalks.
“A lot of people aren’t sure what to do with it,” says Harrison, who enjoys white asparagus in soup or steamed with butter, “but you can do anything you do with green asparagus.”
If you need inspiration, white asparagus from Cookstown Greens north of the city is prized by Toronto chefs.
Janssen says she’s seeing an upswing in sales among young Canadians who’ve tasted white asparagus in Europe and crave a spring fix at home, while Harrison says she can hardly keep up with the demand from accounts such as The Big Carrot and Whole Foods.
Buy a bunch in May and June and show your spear-it!
Asparagus spears grown underground or deprived of light can’t produce chlorophyll to turn green so they remain creamy white.
Thick or thin, all asparagus stalks are naturally tender.
Look for stalks with tight tips and moist ends.
•Cookstown Greens, 705-458-9077. Check out cookstowngreens.com for retail stores and farmer’s markets.
•Janssen Produce, 519-582-2275, janssenproduce.ca. Contact before visiting to ensure they’re harvesting that day. Buy one pound or a 10-pound box.
•Mazak Farms, 519-633-4634, mazakfarms.ca
White asparagus from Peru is now available in supermarkets year-round.
For best taste and texture, cut off ends of white asparagus and peel lightly before cooking.
Green stalks don’t need peeling, just a snap to remove the tough end.
Cover asparagus ends with a damp paper towel and refrigerate in a plastic bag for a day or two.
Stretch the season:
Janssen peels and vacuum-packs white asparagus before freezing for year-round use.
Harrison freezes trimmed green and white spears flat on a cookie sheet then packs frozen spears in bags. Cook from frozen. She also cooks asparagus in stock with an onion then purées and freezes it for winter soups.
Save the cut ends of pricey white asparagus for soup.
Boil: Bring salted water to boil in large skillet and add trimmed white asparagus. Cook, uncovered, 8-10 minutes (depending on thickness) or until just tender.
Steam: Place green asparagus in single layer in large skillet. Add 2 tbsp. (30 mL) water and bring to a boil on medium-high heat. Cover tightly and cook 2 to 3 minutes, until tender. Increase cooking time slightly for thicker white stalks. Don’t overcook!
Roast: Place 1 lb. (500g) trimmed asparagus spears in a single layer in a roasting pan. Toss with 2 tbsp (30 mL) olive oil and sprinkle with coarse salt and pepper. Roast, uncovered, at 450F (230C) 10 to 12 minutes or until softened with a little crunch.
Asparagus with orange vinaigrette
This refreshing springlike vinaigrette also works well with green asparagus.
1 lb. (500 g) white asparagus
2 small navel oranges, peeled and thinly sliced crosswise
1/4 cup (60 mL) olive oil
1 tsp (5 mL) grated orange peel
1/4 cup (60 mL) fresh-squeezed orange juice
2 tbsp (30 mL) white balsamic vinegar
1 tsp (5 mL) Dijon mustard
1/4 tsp (1 mL) salt
Pinch of pepper
Garnish: frisée or endive lettuce
Trim and peel white asparagus and add to boiling water in a skillet. Cook until tender-crisp. Drain and place in a shallow dish with orange slices.
In small bowl, whisk oil, orange peel, juice, vinegar, mustard, salt and pepper. Pour over asparagus. Cover and refrigerate 2 to 3 hours.
To serve, remove asparagus and orange slices from vinaigrette and arrange over greens on a serving platter. Drizzle with vinaigrette.
Makes 4 servings.