Take a stalk on the mild side
Harvested from April to June, white asparagus is cropping up on supermarket shelves now, and the seasonal vegetable is also being showcased at restaurants.
At Sabatini Ristorante Italiano, it comes in from the Black Forest in Germany and is crafted into rich dishes replete with decadent ingredients - from a cream soup with seared Hokkaido scallop to wagyu beef with baby potatoes and Bearnaise sauce.
Nicholini's showcases the ivory spears every year, too, but with Italian imports from the Bassano del Grappa region, presented as various classics with a few contemporary accents. The restaurant is serving white asparagus in a risotto braised with marjoram and dry white wine, and even a dessert: the vegetable is churned into an ice cream with glazed cake and milk chocolate tea mousse on the side.
Yet such efforts pale next to those in Germany where the harvest of spargels, as they are called, is celebrated with a season of so-called spargelfests. Such is the scale and eccentricity of the sprawling events that, besides peeling competitions and tastings, they include the coronation of white asparagus kings and queens.
Historically, white asparagus has always had a more refined, aristocratic edge over its green twin, perhaps due to its staunchly loyal regal following. Roman emperor Julius Caesar was a fan. France's King Louis XIV was a storied zealot, so much so that he built dedicated greenhouses to ensure its availability year-round.
Other evidence of the white variety's higher status comes in a comparison of the prices. At upscale supermarkets such as Great, the white spears (from Peru) sell for HK$21 per 100 grams; the green variety (from Mexico) fetch HK$10.80 per 100 grams.
White asparagus is a labour-intensive crop. The spears are grown deep in the soil and retain their colour-free character by being starved of direct sunlight (which produces chlorophyll, the green pigment found in almost all plants). Every time the tip reaches the surface, the farmer has to cover it with soil to protect it from the sun's rays.
That's one of the reasons it gives an earthier, more mineral-rich impression, at times more bitter than its green twin. So when one cooks the spears, keep the recipe simple and subtle to avoid drowning out the delicate flavours of the white spears. It's a rule of thumb that Michele Rodelli, executive sous chef of Nicholini's, sticks to. 'Most importantly, do not use an aluminium pot to cook it because the aluminium oxide from the pan reacts with the minerals inside white asparagus, making the vegetable turn grey,' he says. The chef uses stainless steel pots.
Always peel the spears as the outer layer tends to be quite bitter. Another important tip is to add a splash of lemon juice to the cooking water to prevent further discolouration. 'Also, put a little bit of sugar in there to balance the bitterness of the white vegetable,' says Rodelli.