When most people think of Belgium, they think of chocolate, beer, or waffles (all delicious, I admit). But not me. I think of asparagus. White asparagus.
It all started two springs ago when Mike and I arrived in Belgium. As we strolled the streets of Brussels for the first time, we were so confused — and not just because everyone was speaking Dutch, French and German all at once. We were confused because on every menu taped to a restaurant window or scrawled in chalk on an easel or shouted to us in one of their many national languages by a rosy-cheeked waiter with a pot belly, was the word “ASPERGES,” sometimes followed by one or more exclamation marks. We figured that it meant asparagus, but we were utterly confused as to why every single menu announced it like it was the second coming of Christ.
Could these people really be so feverish for asparagus? I mean, I like asparagus — don’t get me wrong. But you usually find it listed as a side to a main entree on menus in America, not as the headliner. Something must be tremendously special about this asparagus. So we walked into a local-looking place and ordered a beer and some “asperges.”
The waiter brought over our perfectly poured Tripel Karmeliet with a custard-like, frothy head and… wait, what?? White asparagus. Not green! Just beautiful, fat, juicy, stunningly white asparagus. They were topped with a lemony hollandaise sauce and draped with smoked salmon. One bite of this dish and I understood the aspergemania. So velvety, so tender, so mild-flavored, so perfect.
I was shocked to find out that green and white asparagus are actually the same plant, but the color difference is due to the way it is produced. A tremendous amount of work goes into keeping these asparagus spears buried deep in the soil so they never see a ray of sunlight. This prevents the chlorophyll that would have turned them green from ever forming, and makes the stalks tender. Europeans go nuts for them, but they seem a bit underappreciated in the U.S. But maybe not for long…
I learned from preparing these with a friend in Spain that you have to peel the outside layer off the bottom two thirds of the stalk because it’s a bit tough. I also learned that, unlike the green asparagus that we love to roast or broil until almost crispy, these asparagus are best boiled in salted water to maintain their juiciness and highlight their velvety texture.
I decided to pair these with a mustard sherry vinaigrette and some preserved lemon, my new favorite condiment. So simple to make, and adds such a pop of brilliance to any dish. Just look for some lemons to appear in the bargain bin at Berkeley Bowl (or on your neighbor’s tree when they’re out of town) and make yourself a batch.
You could also prepare these white asparagus with a hollandaise sauce to experience the traditional Belgian/French preparation. However you prepare them, just luxuriate.
White Asparagus with Preserved Lemon in a Mustard Vinaigrette
- 1 bunch white asparagus
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
- 1 Tablespoon olive oil
- 2 teaspoons lemon juice
- 2 drops Sherry vinegar
- black pepper and a pinch of salt
- 1/4 of a preserved lemon
- fresh mint or parsley to garnish
Trim the bottom inch off the asparagus spears. Peel the outside skin off the bottom two thirds of the spears. Fill a deep pan with water and 1 teaspoon salt and bring to a boil. Add the asparagus and simmer for 6-10 minutes or until tender, depending on thickness. Drain and rinse with cool water to stop the cooking. Set aside.
Meanwhile, whisk together the mustard, olive oil, lemon juice, vnegar, and a dash of salt and black pepper to make the vinaigrette. Cut the lemon pulp away from the lemon peel and discard the pulp. Dice the lemon peel into small bits.
To assemble the dish, plate the asparagus spears and drizzle with the vinaigrette. Top with the preserved lemon pieces and a pinch of chopped mint or parsley for color. Serve room temperature.