Asparagus has always been an expensive treat, a vegetable for the rich, who could afford either to grow or to buy it. The average Scandinavian was too hard-working to have the time to cultivate asparagus, a slow and labor-intensive business. Read more about Scandinavian asparagus.
Green asparagus has been popular in Scandinavia for only 30 years or so, which is why all traditional recipes use the white version. White asparagus spears are the pale, fat queens of May and June, with a consistency so beautiful and a taste so refined that they must be truly unique among vegetables.
Appearance and taste
Green asparagus tastes very much like a long, tender green pea. It has as delicious, fresh and distinctly ‘green’ taste. White asparagus, on the other hand, has a definite sweetness, paired with a slight bitterness, and a pervading flavor that spreads its loveliness over other foods that come into close contact; add it to a salad or stew and the dish will taste as though it consists of nothing else, a quality the white asparagus shares with artichokes.
Related: The Norwegian Asparagus Island
How it grows
The spears of wild asparagus, which can be found growing in sandy soils in southern Scandinavia, are very thin, and are even tastier than cultivated asparagus. White asparagus is grown widely in areas of sandy loam, though this is not easy. Asparagus is extremely time-consuming to grow, and a huge investment if you grow more than a few. The crowns must grow undisturbed for three to four years before they can be harvested, and after that you work from light until noon for three months during the harvest in April, May and June.
The paleness of white asparagus is achieved by excluding all light, which is done by piling up soil over the plants as they grow. All weeding much be done by hand, so as not to damage the still-invisible spears, growing undergrown. When they are ready to harvest you venture into your asparagus patch very early in the morning with a sharp long-handled tool to cut the spears before the sun’s rays turn them green. It must be inserted at ground level, and you work blind, as only the very upper up of the asparagus is poking through the soil.
Green asparagus is grown in the field and can be cut at any time of day, as long as it’s every day because, the spears grow at an alarming rate and are short and tender for only a day or two. If you miss the moment, they will be very long and tough.
Related: Scandinavian Cabbage & Kale
Buying and storing
Asparagus is pricy, but not irresponsibly so considering the growing conditions. You can buy relatively cheap white asparagus, which is too finely to peel but perfect as a base for soup, and even big fat spears for much less than a mediocre, small piece of meat. The thickness of green asparagus is not importamt, but the white needs serious peeling, and if the spears are too thin, there will be nothing left. Thin white asparagus tempt you to slack off when it comes to the peeling, and that is not a good idea. They can be used as they are for stock and are good buy for that purpose, as thin spears are much cheaper.
When buying asparagus, the most important thing is to check for freshness. Begin by checking the bottoms (which are often wrapped) as the spears dry out from the bottom up. They must be freshly cut, and the whole stalk must be juicy and firm, without signs of wrinkled old age, and the heads should be tight and not beginning to stretch. If the spears are not fresh, don’t buy them, even if they are cheap, as the taste alters with age and they will disappoint you. Our advice is to limit yourself to buying asparagus only during their brief season in May and June, when you can gorge on them at their best and then long for them until the next season.
Asparagus can be stored wrapped in a clean damp tea towel in the fridge for no more than two days. If you are not going to use the peels straight away, they can be frozen and used for stock later.
Related: Scandinavian vegetables
Both types of asparagus are beautiful in stews, salads, or simply steamed and eaten with fish, as a starter, or veal, chicken or smoked and salted meats. Remember always to add a little sugar to balance the bitterness of white asparagus.
Before you even consider cooking your white asparagus, the spears must be peeled. Rest them in your hand and peel from the head down. When you think you are done, try to bend the asparagus a little, and any traces of peel will show as long, shiny strands. It’s heart-breaking to watch your asparagus shrink, but any trace of peel will be a nasty experience. Asparagus are extremely fibrous, and in the past, you were forced to eat asparagus when you had swallowed a sharp item as the vegetable’s fibers curl themselves around anything in your stomach, guiding it safely on its way out. (Nowadays, they give you cotton wool to eat instead).
The woody ends and peel from white asparagus can do magic in the kitchen, in stocks, sauces and vegetable stews. If you boil the peels in water, then add the cooking liquid to your dish, you will find a satisfying asparagus flavor that suits anything. The woody ends of green asparagus are also useful in stocks and soups.
Green asparagus can be eaten raw, but a fast blanching will make its flavor much more intense.
White asparagus must be cooked, but not for a second longer than necessary. A few minutes in the pot are enough. If you want to eat the asparagus whole, boil them in a wide, shallow saucepan, with a little water, and the lid on, rather than in a huge pot of boiling water.
Asparagus soup used to be a Sunday special, and was often served as a starter at confirmations and weddings coinciding with the asparagus season. Serve with crusty sourdough bread.
500g thin white asparagus
2 celery sticks
1 bunch of new onions with green tops
1 sprig of tarragon
1 small bunch of chervil
1 small bunch of parsley
200ml white wine
4 garlic cloves, or a small bunch of ramsons (wild garlic)
1 bay leaf
1 tablespoon coarse sea salt
1 tablespoon black peppercorns
1 tablespoon sugar
200ml whipping cream
1 small bunch of chives, chopped
Serves 4-5 portions
Rinse the asparagus and cut off the tips. Save the latter and chop the rest into small pieces. Rinse and chop the celery and onions including the green part. Pick the leaves on the herbs and save for later.
Put the wine, garlic, bay, leaf, salt, pepper and sugar in a pan along with the vegetables and herb stalks. Boil slowly until the vegetables are very soft. Fish out the bay leaf, then whizz the soup in a food processor until smooth. Push through a fine sieve, making sure than only inedible fiber is left in the sieve.
Reheat the soup with the cream and reserved asparagus tips, and adjust the seasoning. Serve with the reserved herb leaves and the chopped chives on top.
Feature image (on top): Asparagus from Hvasser. Photo: Gartnerhallen
Scandinavian Asparagus, written by Tor Kjolberg