Asparagus

Sparris

Green asparagus spears on a wooden chopping board

Swedes have always considered asparagus an expensive treat and so it is often enjoyed at special occasions.

Too expensive?

Although asparagus is expensive compared with other vegetables I think it is modestly priced compared with fish and meat and the taste is so good I think it is well worth treating yourself when asparagus is in season. It is also not unreasonably priced given how difficult it is to grow well.

White asparagus

Until 30 years ago nearly all the asparagus grown and sold in Sweden was white, which is why all the traditional Swedish recipes use the white version.

In contrast, nearly all the asparagus grown and sold in the UK and America is green, which is why most of the recipes on this site are based on green asparagus.

White asparagus grown in the UK

In the UK you can occasionally find UK-grown white asparagus for sale in Marks & Spencer and on specialist markets such as London's Borough Market. I don't know why, but in my experience, white asparagus grown in the UK does not have as much flavour as white asparagus grown in Germany or Sweden, so I normally buy green asparagus, but white asparagus is nice for a change occasionally.

Green asparagus

Green asparagus on a market in Sweden

Most of the asparagus sold in Sweden now is green, but unlike in the UK, white asparagus is still widely available. The reason why green asparagus is gaining in popularity is quite simple: it is easier to grow, cheaper and there is much less waste.

Wild asparagus

Wild asparagus spears on a chopping board

Occasionally spears of wild asparagus can be found growing in sandy soils in southern Sweden. I have never managed to find any in Sweden (the photo I took above is of French wild asparagus). The spears are thinner and sometimes they are even tastier than cultivated asparagus spears.

Growing your own

Asparagus is extremely time-consuming to grow well. The crowns must grow undisturbed for three or four years before they can be harvested. They need a light free draining soil and you need to grow a lot because the spears grow at an alarming rate, so you can't simply leave the spears to sit in the ground until you have enough for a meal: it needs picking every day, or least every other day.

Buying and storing

Asparagus grown in Sweden or in the UK only has a short season and is only normally available in May and June. Imported asparagus available all-year-round may look good, but it really doesn't have the same flavour so I would give it a miss. In May and June I can eat asparagus seven days a week, but I happily forgo it for the rest of the year!

When buying asparagus, the most important thing is to check for freshness because the flavour fades rapidly with age. The whole spear should be firm, especially at the bottom as the spears dry out from the bottom up. When asparagus is past its prime, the stalk starts to wrinkle and the tip begins spreading out like a feather. Don't buy it if it is past its prime!

The thickness of green asparagus does not matter: choose which looks freshest or most attractive. With white asparagus it is really important to buy thick spears because if you buy thin spears you will have nothing left by the time it is peeled! The only time it may be worth buying thin white asparagus, even if it is cheap, is to use it for stocks and soups.

To ensure that it is has lots of flavour, asparagus should be eaten as soon as possible after picking and shouldn't be kept for more than two or three days.

Preparing asparagus

Freshly picked asparagus needs careful rinsing to remove any grit, but if you buy it in a supermarket it will probably already have been cleaned for you and so only needs a light rinse.

In the case of green asparagus, simply pick up a spear and bend it in your hand to break off the woody end. (The woody ends can be used in stocks and soups.)

White asparagus being peeled

White asparagus must be peeled. To peel a white asparagus spear, trim about 1 cm (½'') from the ends of the spears. Lay the spears on a work surface, then peel thin skin from each spear with a sharp swivel-blade vegetable peeler, starting 3-4 cm (1½'') from the top and running the length of the spear. (The spears are brittle and can snap when peeled in midair.) When you think you have peeled it enough, try to bend the spear a little and check that the are no shiny strands of skin left. Because white asparagus is so expensive it can be tempting to leave some peel on it, but try and avoid the temptation because it will be very fibrous and quite unpleasant to eat.

Cooking

Green aspragus can be eaten raw in salads, but a fast blanching will intensify the colour and flavour of the spears. To cook green asparagus, steam it for 3-5 minutes, depending on the thickness of the spears. Alternatively, heat a griddle to hot, lightly toss the asparagus in oil, season and then griddle for between 3-8 minutes until charred and tender, but still with a bit of crunch.

White asparagus must be cooked, but not for a second longer than necessary and with as little water as possible to just cover the spears. Gather the spears into bundles, tie loosely with kitchen string, and lower them into a pan of simmering salted water. Increase the heat if necessary to maintain a simmer. Cook until tender when pierced with the tip of a knife, which normally takes 12-15 minutes, but can vary from 8-30 minutes. When cooked, lift the bundles from the simmering water with kitchen tongs and drain on paper towels. (Some like to add a little sugar to the water, as well as salt, to balance the bitterness of white asparagus.)

Although white asparagus can be griddled I prefer to preserve the colour by roasting it instead. Rinse the asparagus spears, trim the ends and peel them as described above. Line a roasting tray with foil or baking paper and arrange the prepared spears on top, drizzle with oil oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper, throw in a couple of peeled cloves of garlic and roast for 10-15 minutes, depending on the thickness. Squeeze over some lemon juice and top with shavings of fresh parmesan or Pecorino. Delicious.

Asparagus with prawns

Asparagus with egg and prawns

For a party I am not keen on cold asparagus. It just isn't the same once cold so I prefer to make sparrismousse med räkor med dill (asparagus mousse with prawns and dill) instead. The mousse can even be made a day or two in advance and just finished off before guests arrive.

Crispy baked asparagus

Crispy baked asparagus with lemon mayonnaise

Krispigt bakad sparris med Västerbottensost (crispy baked asparagus with Västerbottensost) makes a wonderful and easy starter, tapas or addition to a buffet. It can be made with Parmesan, instead of Västerbottensost, if you prefer. Serve it with some lovely lemony mayonnaise and you will have a wonderful treat.

Asparagus soup

White asparagus soup garnished with fresh herbs and chive flowers

Sparrissoppa (asparagus soup) used to be a Sunday special and was often served as a starter at confirmations and weddings during the asparagus season. Traditionally it was made with white asparagus, but it can also be made with green asparagus.

Asparagus and smoked salmon tart

Asparagus and smoked salmon tart

Sparrispaj med rökt lax (asparagus and smoked salmon tart) is an attractive and delicious spring tart which is well worth making when locally grown asparagus is at its best.

Asparagus in salads

Prawn cocktail garnished with asparagus spears

Asparagus can be added to many other dishes, either as a garnish or as an addition to a nice salad. Asparagus spears also go particularly well with some lovely waxy new potatoes, melted butter or vinaigrette and herbs: fantastic.

John Duxbury

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