Sunday, May 24, 2009


Hamburg, Germany

Italian, Thai, Japanese, French... rarely, if ever, do you hear someone say "German!" when asked, "What do you feel like for dinner tonight?" "German" for most conjures up images of beer maidens in low-cut ruffly dirndels carrying enormous steins, baked pretzels with mustard and bratwurst covered with heaping mounds of sauerkraut. But as I will get into later, and admitting my Wisconsin - and therefore Germanic/Scandanavian - roots (which explains in part my penchant for meat and potatoes), I really dig German food. I do. Would venture even to say I love German food. And not the least of which is due to the culinary season currently in its prime here in Germany - Spargelzeit, or literally translated, asparagus time.

Mmmm, white asparagus. These ivory spears are a close cousin of the green variety but affectionados will tell you that their delicate nutty flavor is far superior. Naysayers, like the New York Times’ frugal gourmet Mark Bittman, make fun of the amount of hollandaise sauce that is poured over the stalks, claiming that anything tastes good when drowning in a mixture of butter, eggs and herbs.

Fair enough, but sauce or not, when done just right, i.e. the outer waxy skin is peeled off and the stripped spears are put, standing up, into a tall pot of boiling water with a sprinkling of salt, a pinch of sugar and a pat of butter (my mother-in-law swears by this technique), with the heads sticking out of the water; spears removed when you can sink a fork into them with little resistance but still the retention of the slightest bit of crispness (it takes a few batches to figure out when they are just right) – they are deeeelicious.

Fans also point out that a pound of white asparagus has only 100 calories. What they neglect to mention is that these asparagus are traditionally served covered either in hollandaise sauce or melted butter – either of which probably pack on at least another 1,000 calories – the majority of it from fat. Accompanied by neutral boiled potatoes and salty cooked or cured ham and mmmmmmmmm – what more do you need? Let me answer that for you, a glass of Riesling.

For the botanists in the group, despite the fact that green and white asparagus are of the same species, crop breeding over the last few thousand years has produced variations with entirely different characteristics. White aspargus are grown in dry sandy soil which is heaped on top of beds to prevent direct exposure to the sun. Protecting them from the sun prohibits the production of chlorophyll thereby retaining the white color. Those stalks that do peak however do not turn green, though the tips will turn a dark violet color – which changes the flavor slightly and decreases their value.

The over 70,000 tons of white asparagus consumed in Germany during spargelzeit is grown mainly in the asparagus triangle – an area between the towns of Heidelberg and Mannheim in the state of Baden-Württemberg. Stands spring up on sideroads and booths in the shape of strawberries pop up in local city centers selling the spears as well as smoked ham, different varieties of potatoes, boxes of prepared hollandaise sauce and fresh strawberries – also in season.

Spargelzeit begins in mid april and runs through late June. In today’s global culture where you can walk into any supermarket and get fruits and vegetables picked in Mali, Peru or Spain when they are in season or produced in a greenhouse somewhere in New Jersey when they are not, white asparagus remain available for only 3 months in the year. Which means we eat as much as we can while we can.

In fact, I believe that is what is happening for dinner tonight...

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