Our spring season cycling and hiking tours in Italy coincide perfectly with Northeast Italy’s obsession with a favorite harbinger of spring – the prized white asparagus. From Bassano del Grappa and Cimadolmo in the Veneto, moving north to Zambana in Trentino, and Terlan in Alto Adige, there are festivals and special tasting menus devoted to the sweet “white gold” of spring.
Besides the obvious – color – there is no there’s no difference between green and white asparagus — white asparagus is simply green asparagus that hasn’t been allowed to turn green. Legend has it that in the 1400s or so, an extremely violent hailstorm destroyed most of the harvest. The farmers, desperate for food of any kind, plowed the land under in a search for edible roots and tubers and discovered a delicacy: white asparagus.
To cultivate white asparagus, as soon as the shoots peek through the soil, they are covered up with more soil, which continues as they grow. The stalks are always covered with a thick layer or mulch and now also a dark plastic tarp. Without exposure to sunlight, no photosynthesis starts, and the shoots remain white. This process is called etiolation, and creates pale white asparagus spears that have a more delicate in flavor and more tender than their green cousins.
Due to its quality and delicacy, it is quite perishable and must be correctly conserved and served within a few days. Good preserving practices include immersing the asparagus in was between 6 and 8 degrees centigrade to inhibit oxidation. It is also beneficial to avoid prolonged exposure to light and open air.
In terms of preparation, the lower ends of white asparagus must be peeled before cooking or consuming raw, and blanching carefully in salted water is the preferred method of cooking.
Eggs and asparagus is the classic combination on the table, but closely followed by white asparagus risotto.
Risotto con Gli Asparagi
1 pound white asparagus (substitute green)
12 ounces risotto rice – Vialone nano, Carnaroli, Arbrorio
4 tablespoons butter
1 new onion, peeled and finely sliced
1/2 cup dry white wine
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
5 cups vegetable or chicken broh
1 tablespoon minced fresh parsley
1/2 cup grated grana cheese
Kosher salt and pepper
Bring a large pot of water to a boil, add salt, and blanch the asparagus until tender, but still firm. Remove the asparagus from the pot, aadn immerse in a cold water bath to halt the cooking. Remove the tips and reserve. Cut the stems into 1/2 inch pieces.
Put the broth in a saucepan and heat.
Place 2 tablespoons of the butter in a large saute ban and melt over medium heat. Add the onion, and cook until tender and translucent, about 4 minutes.
Add the chopped asparagus stems, and cook for a few minutes, then add the rice and toast for a few minutes.
Add the wine, and when it has evaporated completely, begin to stir in the hot broth. Add a ladlefull of the hot stock and simmer, stirring gently, until the stock is absorbed. Continue adding the stock a ladlefull at a time, stirring and waiting until the stock is absorbed before the next addition of stock. Continue until the rice is al dente. The stock may not all be used.
When the risotto is done, stir in the remaining butter, grated cheese and parsley and season with salt to taste. Carefully stir in the reserved asparagus tips, and serve immediately.