Issue No. 66: White Asparagus

White asparagus isn’t all that popular in the US. In Europe, though, it’s practically a rock star. Home cooks snatch it up. Chefs design entire menus around it. Even the king of Spain gets excited about it. And when it’s not in season, people buy it in cans and gobble it up.

White asparagus is a lot more work to grow than green asparagus.

White asparagus and green asparagus are the exact same vegetable. The difference is that white asparagus is grown underground, away from the light. Once light touches the asparagus it starts photosynthesis and begins producing chlorophyll, which makes the stalk green. To keep the asparagus underground, big mounds of soil are piled atop the tender stalks. Maintaining that soil covering takes diligence—asparagus stalks can pop up a couple of inches above the ground overnight, and then more soil must be piled on top of them or they’ll start to turn green right away. In a small home garden that might not be so bad, but when you’re growing acres and acres of white asparagus, it’s a lot of work.

So if it’s so much harder—and thanks to the extra labor, more expensive—to grow white asparagus than to just let the stalks pop out and turn green, why go to all that trouble? It’s for the flavor. Where green asparagus can be pungent, white asparagus is mild, delicate, subtle, and sweet, with a more tender texture.

The season for white asparagus is short—usually not more than six weeks, starting in April and ending in June. During that time, restaurants in Spain and Germany create menus with dishes devoted to highlighting white asparagus. Home cooks buy it in droves at the market. In college, when I studied abroad in Paris, I remember one May evening when my host mother served a simple dish of boiled white asparagus with a tangy sauce on the side. “It’s the season, so we must eat it,” she told me, as though it were the most obvious thing in the world.

But white asparagus lovers aren’t content to just eat it in season. The rest of the year, they stock up on cans of it.

Some of the best canned white asparagus comes from the Navarre region of northern Spain—the same area that brings us piquillo peppers. Since white asparagus starts wilting as soon as it’s out of the ground, the harvest starts each morning at 6 AM so that the asparagus can be canned the same day it’s picked—like I said, white asparagus is a lot of work! When the stalks arrive at the cannery, the first step is to peel them to remove the tough, woody skin that gives the asparagus a bitter flavor. Next the stalks are steamed, then they’re packed in tins, by hand, with only water and a pinch of salt. That’s it. The simple preparation means the subtle, spring flavor shines.

In the US, we tend to think that canned food is bad food—or, at least, inferior to fresh. And hey, during white asparagus season, if you can find fresh ones I’d definitely recommend buying them. But the other 10 months of the year—or all year round, if you don’t happen to live in a place with a springtime white asparagus supply—canned asparagus that’s made with the attention to detail you’ll find with ours is totally great. Just ask King Juan Carlos of Spain—after tasting canned asparagus from El Navarrico (the company we get our asparagus from), he exclaimed “Cojonudos!” which, if you’re not up on your Spanish slang, is a not-totally-polite way to say “amazing!”

How to use white asparagus.

Serving it couldn’t be easier—just open the tin and you’re ready to dig in. The classic way to serve white asparagus is with a sauce: try it gently warmed with mayo, or hollandaise, or a vinaigrette. For a light, summery recipe, try whisking up a mix of one tablespoon of good sherry vinegar with three tablespoons of good extra virgin olive oil, then use that to dress the white asparagus with maybe some diced tomatoes and bell (or, better yet, piquillo) peppers. Serve asparagus straight from the can alongside cured Spanish ham for a simple, flavorful appetizer. Or try simmering the asparagus in a soup.