White asparagus are incredibly popular in Europe, particularly Belgium, France and Spain, but have never really caught on in these shores in the same way. Perhaps the combination of expense and lack of knowledge puts people off; shoppers are far more likely to spend their money on the green variety. But whereas green asparagus has a lovely verdant grassiness when al dente, white asparagus harbours a latent bitterness. A longer and slower exposure to heat is needed to showcase them and they should be served tender rather than al dente.
My personal preference is to season them well all over then colour them until light golden in virgin rapeseed oil or salted butter. Something rounded or nutty rather than the peppery bitterness of olive oil is what is needed here. Then gently baking in a low-medium oven (150-160C) under a cartouche or tinfoil until tender within but still holding their shape. This may take about 15 minutes.
The residing bitterness does have an elegance and is tempered when cooked until tender. Sliced white asparagus makes a brilliant addition to a cream sauce for veal or chicken for example. Just as it absorbs some flavours from the sauce, it also imparts its own.
Another great bedfellow are nuts and miso. Baked white asparagus is lovely with a miso dressing and toasted hazelnuts. But it doesn’t have to be baked. Raw shavings of white asparagus (just using a veg peeler) can be laced with a sharp dressing to create a juicy and flavoursome tangle. You could add some orange segments from this week’s hamper too. Like bitter leaves, they actively need a good amount of a sweet-sour dressing to make them shine.
To prep, like green asparagus, snap off the base where it breaks naturally then eaten with a sharp knife. I peel them at least once. Depending on how large and fibrous they are, you might need to peel a second time. I actually don’t peel green asparagus, preferring to remove the thistles from the base of the head down. You can actually utilise the bases too to make the most of this expensive product. Juiced or blended with some water, they make the base for a delicious dressing; just add some oil, vinegar or lemon juice, salt and chopped herbs. It tastes incredibly healthy.
A final word on storage. If not cooking them immediately, think of the asparagus like cut flowers, and place upright in a wide glass or mug with some water in the base. This will help keep them hydrated and stop them drying out and wilting. They stay fresh so much longer this way. The tops can be covered with a damp J-cloth.