The first time I ever tasted white asparagus—or even knew of its existence, for that matter—I was sixteen and just a few hours into my summer “study abroad” in Germany. It was June, and I had arrived that fine summer day just in time for the midday meal. My host mother, as good of a Hausfrau as I have ever met, always made sure there was a warm lunch on the table for me and her two teenage daughters when we would come home from school. On that particular day I was jetlagged and confused. My German, I readily admit, was not very good at that point, and every conversation going on around me felt confusing and unfamiliar. I didn’t really understand what was going on as I sat in the kitchen watching Inga, one of the daughters, speed off on her bicycle only to come back about ten minutes later with a bag of spears that looked pretty much like this.
A little magic happened on the stove, after which we sat down to a truly delicious meal. I needed to get over my initial feeling of, “What the hell? Aren’t asparagus supposed to be green and much smaller than this?” My hesitation lasted about five seconds, because there was nothing about these white stalks to remind me of the handful of times in my life I had eaten mushy asparagus from a can. We had it a lot for the first few weeks, and then suddenly, it was all gone. No more asapragus in the fields, no more white asparagus for me during my stay. I bought it a few times at Whole Foods in Los Angeles, but it was always expensive and a bit of a let down. Nothing really compared to my memories of German Spargel. I should thank my lucky stars that I live here now.
I think most Dutch people would be horrified to know that I very clearly linked asparagus with German cuisine for years. It was only two years ago, during my first spring in the Netherlands, that I learned how important asparagus is to Dutch identity, especially in the southern provinces where the bulk of the fields are located. You can find biking and walking routes through the fields and a list of asparagus related celebrations here, if you're so inclined. Don't think that I haven't looked at it already and planned an afternoon excursion. Even if I couldn't make it to the fields, I wouldn't suffer. The supermarkets, vegetable stands, and restaurants in Amsterdam all boast big signs for "Asperges."
There are a million ways to prepare asparagus, but since this week was my first foray into cooking with the real deal, Limburgse asperges, I felt I owed it to myself and Dutch cuisine to make it the classic way. Oh, Dutch cuisine...I would say that lots of traditional Dutch dishes are not complicated (not a bad thing) and often involve boiling things to varying degrees of doneness.
The traditional asparagus meal includes boiled asparagus spears, boiled potatoes, a hard-boiled egg, and a few rolls of thinly sliced ham all with a nice layer of melted butter poured on top. That's why I had three pots boiling on the stove and one tiny saucepan melting butter. The asparagus has to be peeled before cooking, as the outer layers are tough. The peeler in the picture above is a special asparagus peeler, and if you believe the description on the back of the packaging, you will learn that no household is complete without one. Seriously, I had no idea my kitchen had been lacking in such an important tool. I altered the recipe slightly to include the potato skins (because I like it that way), and we had a fewer pieces of ham on the plate. Really, how many ham slices can one person eat?...Actually, don't answer that. I probably could eat quite a few pieces if I weren't also consuming massive amounts of butter and starch.
Here I am, tentatively pouring butter all over our plates. Apparently believing everything is better with butter is not simply reserved for baked goods:
I asked Niek how I did for my first attempt. He was pretty pleased with my mad skills (i.e. the ability to boil things), although I think I need to peel a few more layers off next time to make the bottom of the stalks a little less tough. I could buy one of those fancy pots made only for cooking asparagus, but that seems like a ridiculous investment. Here's a close-up of dinner and also a picture of Niek taking in the amazing smell while the dog looks on from his chair.
I couldn't eat like this every night, but it's fun to feel a little Dutch every once in a while. Besides, the asparagus season is so short, I need to take advantage of it while I can. Before I know it, it will be gone again for another year.