I look forward to big, fat springtime asparagus every year and I’ve allotted quite a bit of space to the beautiful green spears that deliciously beckon the arrival of warmer days each year. Some of my favorites include the classic Bistro Inspired Asparagus with Mimosa Sauce and an Asparagus Salad with Crème Fraîche and Salmon Roe. Here in Southern California, the prime asparagus season is between April and June. However, there’s another shorter (sweeter) asparagus season and it’s beginning right now. I’m talking about white asparagus. The delicious white asparagus featured in this White Asparagus Salad with Oranges and Tree Ripened Olives.
Genetically speaking white asparagus is no different than green asparagus, with one exception. White asparagus never sees the sun so it never develops the chlorophyll that would turn the stalks green. It’s a time-honored agricultural process, and though farmers have made some concessions for modernity, the cultivation of white asparagus has remained largely the same for many generations.
Farmers plant the stalks in long mounded rows. As the plants grow, the rising spears are piled with dirt. The least amount of sunlight could color the asparagus and ruin the entire crop. It’s a fascinating process, but the most important result the cook needs to know is that white asparagus develops fibrous skin and therefore should be peeled before cooking.
As I said white asparagus is identical to herbaceous green asparagus (minus the chlorophyll). However, it tastes quite different because it carries the terroir of the soil it’s grown in. As with wine grapes, the soil actually influences the flavor.
Since we seem to be discussing agriculture let’s also talk about the olives in the White Asparagus Salad. I’ve chosen ripe green olives. The key word is ripe. Most olives are picked and cured before they’ve ripened. The squeaky black olives that kids like to stick on the ends of their fingers are an exception. But you can also find green olives that were allowed to ripen on the tree before they’re picked. These are very special olives. The best of them come from Graber Olives here in California, but I’ve also seen tree-ripened green olives at Trader Joe’s. GREG