In Missouri, wild morel mushrooms are a food lover’s sign of spring and send hunters into a fever pitch. But in Europe, white asparagus — harvested during a short window in April, May and June — is equally celebrated.
“Everybody is excited about it when it comes up, and all the restaurants are making small menus for the season. People eat a ton of it,” says Martin Heuser, the chef/owner of Affare, a contemporary German restaurant in the Crossroads Arts District.
Heuser says the pleasures of eating white asparagus, known as “spargel,” are not yet well-known in Kansas City. “It’s an insider thing,” he says. “We get calls asking, ‘Is it here yet? Is it here yet?’ ”
White asparagus grows underground: Huffington Post once called it “The Vampire of the Vegetable World.” As soon as the head emerges, it is snapped off so that it is never exposed to the sunlight that allows it to develop chlorophyll, the reason asparagus turns green.
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“When I grew up, I didn’t even know there was green asparagus,” says Katrin Heuser, who runs the restaurant with her husband and handles the wine selections.
The fat wands have a “creamy” head and sturdy stalks way past the often recommended pencil-thin. “It’s tender but has a crunch to it,” Heuser says, “but it’s more like a juicy crunch, while the green is stronger, (with) grassy flavors and, you know, drier.”
Heuser recently received his first shipment from the capital of white asparagus in Limburg, the Netherlands. He presses the nail of his index finger into the bottom of the stalk, and droplets of water release.
Instead of snapping his spears, Heuser trims the thick white spears, then bundles the asparagus by the pound with kitchen twine and cooks the spears in water seasoned with salt, sugar, butter and lemon for 10 minutes.
Traditional accompaniments are an egg, new potatoes, drawn butter and hollandaise. It’s also good paired with morels, truffles, house-smoked Faroe Islands salmon and lachsschinken, a shaved, smoked ham that is silky in texture. Each item appears on the restaurant’s Weisser Spargel menu as an a la carte item.
My recent (and very filling) lunch of asparagus ($34 per pound; half pound is $20) with an egg ($3), hollandaise ($4) and smoked salmon (9) and a perfectly matched glass of Gruner Silvaner, made with a white grape grown primarily in Alsace and Germany, was not inexpensive but probably in line with other rare delicacies.
“It’s not cheap, but it is popular. For the people who really like it, it’s cheaper to come here than to fly to Germany,” Heuser says with a laugh.
White asparagus is available for a limited time only: Chef Heuser will stop importing the white asparagus the first week of June so that the crop has time to recover for next year.
Dutch white asparagus from Limburg, the Netherlands, are the most famous. At holland.com, there are restaurants, recipes and cycling tours available through the fields listed for tourists to enjoy a vegetable known as “white gold” and traditionally harvested from the second Thursday in April until June 24.
Katrin says when she was young in Germany, growing white asparagus was a popular hobby. Farmers are starting to grow white asparagus in the Kansas City area, but Martin says it takes four years before the harvest is mature.
“I had my first sample of Kansas City-grown white but they only had like 12 pieces. It will take four years before you can actually harvest it in the proper size,” he says.
Jill Wendholt Silva is The Star’s James Beard award-winning food editor and blog curator. Reach her at email@example.com or @kcstar.com.