Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Allure of 'White Gold': White Asparagus and Mushroom Soup

Celebrating Easter on the road this year meant that I wasn't able to try out any new spring recipes, but if I'd been home, our Easter meal might have included one of my favorite seasonal ingredients - white asparagus. White asparagus is extremely popular in northern Europe, and Germany in particular, where it's sometimes called 'white gold.' During our time in Germany, Matt and I lived near a huge asparagus-growing area and I can remember driving past tarp-covered fields, waiting in eager anticipation for the season to begin.

White asparagus actually comes from the same plant as the more common green variety - the difference in color and flavor is due to the fact that white asparagus is kept out of the light during growing, which prevents photosynthesis (the lack of chlorophyll is what makes the asparagus appear white). It has a slightly milder and less bitter flavor, and the shoots are often thicker and more robust than their green siblings. On menus, white asparagus appears drizzled with hollandaise sauce, steamed with lemon juice, paired with seafood, blended in cream soups or even roasted on pizza. The highly-prized vegetable has a very specific growing season - usually late April until late June. In Bavaria, June 24th is celebrated as the end of Spargelsaison (Asparagus Season).

I tasted some excellent white asparagus during my walk across northern Spain and also bought it numerous times during my time in Germany. I was so eager to bring some of this delicacy back with me to the States that I purchased a jar of pickled asparagus during my last week in Bamberg. Set aside for a special occasion, the jar survived our entire stay in Oklahoma and actually ended up coming on the road with Matt and I this past month.  We finally opened it during an al fresco lunch in Nevada's Valley of Fire State Park (an excellent park, by the way).  With great fanfare and high expectations, we each bit into a tender, luminous spear... only to discover that they tasted awful! Briny and sour in a way I've never found them, and so very disappointing.

I'm still not sure if there was something wrong with that jar, but you certainly shouldn't let our bad experience dissuade you from trying 'white gold' for yourself! The thick, fleshy shoots need to be peeled to ensure tenderness when cooked, but the extra effort is certainly worthwhile. Like green asparagus, the white variety is also excellent when paired with mushrooms, garlic or bacon, but the subtlety of the flavor means it can be easily overwhelmed and might best be savored with a light drizzle of melted butter or a few drops of lemon juice. Alternatively, this simple soup recipe preserves the flavor of the asparagus, while adding a bit of body with the addition of mushrooms.

White Asparagus and Mushroom Soup
adapted from this recipe at
1 small onion, finely chopped
2 Tablespoons butter
1 1/2 - 2 pounds white asparagus (about 12 stalks)
6 oz baby portobello mushrooms, finely chopped
6 cups chicken or vegetable stock
1/2 cup half-and-half cream (I substituted 1/4 cup Greek Yogurt and a bit of soy milk for a healthier version!)
Salt and pepper, to taste
Dry white wine or lemon juice, to taste (optional)
parsley, chives or cream to garnish

Starting just below the tip, peel each asparagus stalk with a vegetable peeler or paring knife.  Be sure to take the peel off completely to keep your soup from being bitter or fibrous (especially if your stalks are large).  Cut off the tips and reserve.  Cut each stalk into 1 1/2 each pieces.  Chop mushrooms finely by hand, or use a food processor for a creamier soup.

In a large saucepan, over medium-low heat, saute the butter and onion until the onion becomes translucent.  Add asparagus pieces (except the heads - they're the best part and will be added later!) and sauté for about 3-4 minutes.  Add chopped mushrooms and sauté a further 2-3 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Add stock and bring to a boil over medium-high heat.  Simmer gently for about 30 minutes or until the asparagus becomes soft.

Purée the soup using a hand blender or, by batches, in a regular blender (take care that the hot soup doesn't splatter!).  Return to a simmer and add reserved asparagus tips, cooking for about 10 minutes or until the tips are tender but not soft.

Reduce heat and stir in cream.  Add wine, salt and pepper to taste.  Garnish with a sprig of parsley, chopped chives or a drizzle of half-and-half. Serve immediately. Serves 4.

A few notes:  The last time I made this soup I was still in Germany and seeing the pictures of my wonderful apartment makes me so homesick! I can't tell you how many times I've woken up with plans to run to the market downtown, only to remember that it's now thousands of miles and hours of airline-travel away. This soup is great as an accompaniment to a full meal, especially fish or pork dishes, but it's also excellent on its own, served with a rugged, floury chunk of fresh bread. 

For a healthier version, you can substitute Greek yogurt mixed with milk or soy milk for the cream (I've had success with about 1/4 cup Greek yogurt and a generous splash of plain, unsweetened soy milk) and use lemon juice or nothing in place of the wine.  It also works fine with olive oil in place of butter but you'll sacrifice a bit of richness which is nice in such a simple soup.  For an asparagus-only version, omit the mushrooms but you may want to add a bit of sugar (only 1 Tablespoon or so).

As you can see from the photos, my soup is a bit more 'rustic' than many restaurant versions and I like it that way.  If, however, you prefer a smoother soup, just pass it through a fine sieve before serving and return the whole asparagus tips to the bowls.

 This post is linked at:
33 Shades of Green: Tasty Tuesdays

1 comment:

  1. This looks delicious. I will have to get my hubby to make it. It reminds me a little bit of my favorite butternut squash soup - yummy! Our farmer's market opens this weekend, maybe they'll have some white asparagus!