Poached White Asparagus

There’s a big difference between green and white asparagus. Many people are only familiar with the green variety – unless you are living in Germany, France, Austria or Switzerland, where the white variety is much more appreciated.

Sometimes white asparagus will have purple tips. This is common for French versions. They believe white asparagus should be uncovered for one day before harvesting, which will activate the chlorophyll process and begin to turn the tips a purple color. The tips are a bit more bitter than purely white varieties, but the French just adore these asparagus that have been kissed by the sun!

Preparing and cooking white asparagus is different than working with green asparagus. White asparagus should be peeled from head to toe…with a heavy shaving along the cut end that can be woody. The white spears are normally cooked whole – often tied together in groups of 5 or 7 spears. They are lightly poached for about 20 minutes in salted water with plenty of acid to help preserve the brilliant white color.

White asparagus also like to act as the star on the plate. It is much more common to serve the spears whole – perhaps accompanied by some kind of rich fatty sauce that will balance the acidity from the poaching liquid and the slight bitter notes. They are best when just slightly warmed to a temperature creeping above room temperature.

This recipe is based on what I learned during my years cooking in a high-end Zürich restaurant!

Yield: makes about 4-6 servings

  • 9-12 medium thick white asparagus

  • 1 tablespoon white wine vinegar

  • 1 lemon, halved

  • 125 ml. (1/2-cup) white wine

  • 2 tablespoons sugar

  • 1 tablespoon sea salt

  • Clean the asparagus by soaking them in cold water and 1 tablespoon white wine vinegar for 15 minutes. Drain and begin to peel them. Start by cutting off the bottom 1-cm (1/2-inch). Peel the tough outer skins by starting from the top and peeling down toward the cut end. Be careful and gentle while peeling as you want to avoid breaking off the tip of the asparagus.
  • Place about 1 ½ liters (1 ½ quarts) water in a wide and medium deep pot. The pot should be wide enough to fit the asparagus when laid in the pot. Squeeze the lemon halves into the water, add the two halves to the water along with the white wine and sugar. Mix well, add all the asparagus and gently heat the water over medium-high until just before boiling. Add the salt as this point and mix.
  • Cover the pot slightly and simmer for about 20 minutes. Judging the doneness can be tricky. Remove one spear and insert a knife tip through the bottom part of the asparagus. There should be just the suggestion of some give. Cut off a small piece and try it. It should not be woody, but still have some bite. If you are satisfied, then turn off the heat, remove the pot from the burner and cool the asparagus in the water for 20 minutes (remove the asparagus right away if you feel they are approaching overcooking). Remove to a plate.
  • Serve warm with mayonnaise or rouille, or enjoy cold in a salad. Reheat gently in the poaching liquid for about 5 minutes.

Jack’s Fresh Tip

White asparagus can be tricky to purchase. It is really worth it to get your hands on very fresh white asparagus, which means you are looking for smooth skins that are slightly moist feeling. There should be no signs of cracking or wrinkling – if that’s the case then give this recipe a pass or consider making a white asparagus soup.

Choose an acidic white wine – something like a Alsace Riesling.

Save the peel and cut off bottom portion. Cook in water with a bit of onion, carrot, celery and bay leave – just enough onion to cover the vegetables. Cook for 15 minutes, turn off the heat and cool completely before straining. This will make a tasty asparagus broth to use in a soup or risotto.

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