I already spotted them in the store, their white stalks dimly gleaming from the crate. It is Spargelzeit (white asparagus season)!
If you are not familiar with German spargel, prepare to be wowed by the German's obsession with this seasonal delicacy. Called the "King of Vegetables", Germans devour almost 2 kilos (4.4 pounds) of the white gold during its short season.
In anticipation of the event, I have dusted off my old recipes and am ready to try some that are brand new. Perhaps it is time for me to even consider a pilgrimage out of Berlin to Beelitz to one of the many spargel festivals. But if this is your first time working with spargel, you should know it is very different from green asparagus and requires unique preparation.
Here is how to buy, store and cook spargel in Germany.
Buying the right Spargel
White asparagus is delicate and finicky and there is usually at least one rod that turns out woody. Perhaps it so popular because the perfect bite can be so elusive.
Spargel is sold everywhere in Germany from early April to late June. The skin should appear lightly luminescent - not dull - and the head should be closed. White asparagus must have solid rods that break easily, but are not overly flexible. Check for freshness by rubbing the rods together and listen for a squeak indicating they are moist. For easier cooking, select spears of uniform thickness.
Spargel is sold in classes based on their diameter once cut (larger rated higher), how tightly their tips are closed, straightness, and if there are any signs of sun exposure such as pink/purple coloring.
- Klasse extra - Best quality with straight rods, minimum diameter of 12 mm (15/32 inch) and closed tips. Suitable for an entree and cost 8 to 12 euros per kilo.
- Klasse 1 / Handelsklasse I (HK I) - Very good quality with mostly straight rods, minimum diameter of 10 mm (3/8 inch), and some light coloration. Best served as a side dish and cost about 8 euros per kilo.
- Klasse 2 / Handelsklasse II (HK II) - Good quality with some curved stalks, minimum diameter of 8 mm (5/16 inch) and may have slightly opened flower heads. May have more color than HK I and higher chance of woodiness. This class is best for soups or purees and costs around 4-5 euros a kilo.
How do you eat Spargel?
There is no wrong way to eat Spargel whether you choose to start on the thick bottom or bite off the fine top. It can be simply eaten with butter or hollandaise or accompany a full German meal.
After a quick wash, the stalks are peeled like a carrot to just below the tip. Once peeled, the bottom 1/4 inch is cut off. The stalks are then boiled in water for about 12-20 minutes depending on thickness. The water may be flavored with butter, salt or even a pinch of sugar (to reduce bitterness). Poke the stem with a fork to tell if they are done. There should be some give, but don't overcook the Spargel so they turn to total mush.
Spargel should not be cooked in in an aluminum pot as the minerals in the asparagus react to the aluminum-oxide and turns the asparagus gray. To help it keep its color, lemon juice may also be added.
While Spargel are best eaten fresh, it can be kept for a period of time. To keep it as fresh as possible, wrap it in a damp towel and store in the refrigerator for up to three days. If you can't bear the thought of a Spargel-less existence throughout the rest of the year, peel the veggie before freezing for up to 8 months.
Like so many great foods, Spargel is a bit finicky. It can be quite woody if not prepared properly and much of the luxurious flavor comes from the fabulous sauces you pair with it. Good Spargel is subtle and fine and delicate. These pairings support that the best recipes may be the most simple. Try classics like:
The best version might be a combo of the bottom two with boiled potatoes. With the ham wrapped around the pointy spears and covered in buttery sauce you may begin to understand the German obsession.
- 1 lb. (or a little less than half a kilo) white asparagus per person
- 1 tsp. salt
- 1 tsp. sugar
- 1 tbsp. butter
- 1 tbsp. lemon juice (optional)
- Prep Time: 30 minutes
- Cook Time: 10 minutes
- Total Time: 40 minutes
Cut off the root end of the Spargel and peel the tough outer layer like a carrot.
Boil the asparagus in water with salt, sugar and butter. You may add lemon juice which will help preserve the color. The heads should be out of the water but below the brim.
Cook for 10-15 minutes. At 10 minutes they still have the appropriate bite while past 15 minutes they start to get too soft.
Other Common Spargel Recipes
Once you've experienced the classic, you might be inspired to tread further into the world of spargel.
- Spargelsuppe (Cream of Asparagus Soup) - A version of this soup literally appears on every restaurant menu, but it is easy to prepare at home.
- Flammenkuchen mit Spargel und Prociutto - This ever popular Alsatian dish that resembles a thin pizza is often topped with Spargel in season. Pair with Italian prosciutto and you have the perfect savory meal.
Exotic Spargel Recipes
Since Spargel is everywhere in season, it seems some German chefs take cooking spargel creatively as a challenge. The quintessential spring vegetable has been baked, braised and pulverized into an impressive array of appetizers, entrées, and desserts.
- Dirty Gin Martini with Pickled White Asparagus Spears - This intrepid drinker combines alcohol and Spargel. The Germans should be smitten. Or - in my opinion - even more appetizing would be a pickled spear in a nice tall Bloody Mary like the green version.
- Spargel Eis (white asparagus ice cream) - In a country almost as crazy about eis (ice cream) as it is about Spargel, it is no surprise there have been impressive efforts to combine the two.
- In Brandenburg (the state surrounding Berlin), Spargel may be enjoyed after roasted it in butter with breadcrumbs. Serve with a fried veal cutlet.
- Baden's asparagus is served with pancake known as Kratzete (rough translation to "rubbish") and ham.
- In the Lower Rhine, asparagus is eaten not just with melted butter, but scrambled eggs.
- In Nuremberg, Spargel is served as a salad with whole, cooked rods and Nuremberg sausages.
- The Spargel of Schleswig Holstein can be eaten with Süßkartoffeln (sweet potatoes) in their skins, but are still usually paired with ham and hollandaise sauce.
What to Drink with your Favorite Spargel Recipe
Asparagus - white or green - can be difficult to match with wine. Methionine, a sulfurous amino acid, and compounds known as thiols are found in asparagus and can make wines taste bitter. Luckily, by remembering just a few things you can have your spargel and drink with it, too.
Dry white wines are the most common pairing. Try a Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Riesling, young Grüner Veltliner or Silvaner (a German favorite).
If you prefer a red, go for light, unoaked red wine with low tannins. For example, a Pinot Noir can complement the spargel depending on the rest of the dish.
Another important thing to remember is that it is not all about the spargel, its also about the inevitable sauce. The sauce may actually be more important than the centerpiece. For an example, try pairing the most common sauce of hollandaise with a mature Chardonnay, traditional white Rioja or Champagne.
And of course we can't give German drink options without mentioning the beer. Wheat beers appear to be a favorite with Belgian Witbier and good ole German Weißbiers topping the list.