White asparagus is quintessential springtime—fresh and fleeting, in season just from March through May. It owes its spectral appearance to human intervention; as the stalks grow, workers repeatedly cover up the tops with dirt, preventing the shoots from seeing sunlight until after they’re harvested. This prevents them from developing chlorophyll, the pigment that would turn them green. Why go to all the trouble? Well, for one thing, white asparagus is delicious—meatier, sweeter and less vegetal than its green counterpart.
There’s more. While white asparagus may be difficult to cultivate, once it has made its way into your fridge, it is remarkably accommodating. “I think the thing that’s most unique about white asparagus is the ability to be cooked in a lot of different ways,” says chef Abram Bissell, of Wine Spectator Grand Award winner the Modern at New York's Museum of Modern Art. “You can braise them, roast them, grill them, and the biggest reason you can do that is they’re white.” Though exposure to oxygen during cooking can give green vegetables an unhappy all-over brown tinge, white vegetables don’t really fade (think of cauliflower). So the up-front work required to produce white asparagus—which is reflected in its price tag—does pay dividends.
In the recipe that follows, Bissell provides a classic French option for cooking white asparagus: poaching it in a bath of stock, butter and lemon. He combines the poached asparagus with fresh peas and three quick sauces: perky lemon vinaigrette, aromatic chive oil and homey buttermilk dressing. Three dressings for one salad might seem a bit extra, but each one is easy to prepare, and keeping them distinct preserves the clarity of each flavor.
Although the recipe, which serves two, calls for cooking only four stalks of asparagus, you could easily poach an entire bunch and save the rest for another dish. Or, if you want to try cooking the rest another way, they will keep in the fridge for up to two weeks, with a damp paper towel wrapped around the bottoms, Bissell says.
There are more and more sources for good white asparagus, but Bissell says the finest are from Provence, and he also gives shout-outs to Austria and Holland. For a couple of reasons, he prefers fatter rather than slimmer stalks. “A large asparagus is like eating a piece of protein,” he explains. “It’s meaty. It’s juicy.” Additionally, using thicker spears helps ease the burden of having to peel the asparagus, a step that the green version doesn’t require. “You can always think about the amount of work-to-yield you get from something,” he suggests. “I think there’s a lot more use from a larger asparagus.”
So how to get the most out this precious, hyperseasonal veggie? In part, it comes down to technique. The natural shape of asparagus is slightly conical, narrowing from root to tip. For a perfect, even poach, you want to peel it into a cylinder, taking more off the root than the tip to achieve this effect. A sharp knife will be more helpful here than a standard-issue vegetable peeler.
Technique aside, Bissell is a believer in following your senses. “Trust that the recipe’s a really good guide for something delicious, but if it’s going to be phenomenal for you, then you have to taste along.”
Harnessing our own tastes in the kitchen is perhaps more a part of home-cooking culture now than ever before, a shift Bissell celebrates. “As Americans, I think we’re getting so much better about understanding food,” he reflects. “Food is not hard; you just have to know what you like and trust it. And cook.”
Pairing Tip: Why Sauvignon Blanc Works with this Dish
For more tips on how to approach pairing this dish with wine, recommended bottlings and notes on chef Abram Bissell’s inspiration, read the companion article, "White Asparagus With Sauvignon Blanc," in the May 31, 2019, issue, via our online archives or by ordering a digital edition (Zinio or Google Play) or a back issue of the print magazine. For even more wine-pairing options, WineSpectator.com members can find other recently rated Sauvignon Blancs in our Wine Ratings Search.
White Asparagus with Peas, Chive Oil and Buttermilk Dressing
Recipe courtesy of chef Abram Bissell and tested by Wine Spectator’s Rori Kotch.
- 4 pieces white asparagus, tough ends trimmed
- 2 1/3 cups vegetable stock
- 7 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 1/3 cup plus 1/4 cup olive oil
- 1 1/2 lemons, plus 1 tablespoon plus 1/2 teaspoon lemon juice
- 8 sprigs lemon thyme
- Kosher salt and black pepper
- 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons buttermilk
- 1/2 cup crème fraîche
- 1 tablespoon plus 1/2 teaspoon mayonnaise
- 1/4 cup shelled garden peas
- 1/4 cup shelled sugar snap peas plus 4 whole sugar snap peas, opened up
- 1 teaspoon minced shallot
- 1 cup plus 1 tablespoon chopped fresh chives, divided
- 2 tablespoons fresh mint
- 1 scant cup canola oil
- Fleur de sel
1. Peel the asparagus all the way to the tip, leaving about 1 inch of the tip unpeeled. Place the asparagus in a medium pot. Add the stock, butter, 1/3 cup olive oil, 1 tablespoon lemon juice, lemon thyme and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Cover pot. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer over medium-low heat. Cook until a fork inserted into the asparagus meets little resistance, about 5 minutes from when you covered the pot. Cool the asparagus in the cooking liquid to infuse the flavor. For best results, transfer the asparagus and cooking liquid to the refrigerator to infuse further overnight.
2. In a medium bowl, combine the buttermilk, crème fraîche, mayonnaise, 1/2 teaspoon lemon juice and black pepper to taste. Whisk until well-blended, then season with salt to taste.
3. In a small bowl, combine the juice of 1 1/2 lemons and the remaining 1/4 cup olive oil with a pinch of salt and pepper, whisking until well-blended. In a separate bowl, combine the shelled peas, shallots and 1 tablespoon chives. Toss to coat with a bit of the lemon vinaigrette. Season with salt and pepper, and reserve the rest of the vinaigrette for finishing.
4. Place the remaining 1 cup chives, mint and canola oil in a blender, and blend on high until the mixture is very smooth. If it heats up, transfer to a bowl set over a bowl of ice to cool down. Strain through a fine-mesh sieve, discarding the solids.
5. Remove the cooled asparagus from the cooking liquid. Discard the liquid or reserve it for another use; it’s excellent as a base for soup or vinaigrette. Pat asparagus dry and dress with some of the reserved lemon vinaigrette. Put 2 pieces of asparagus on each plate, and sprinkle with fleur de sel. Place the pea salad on and around the asparagus. Add 2 opened snap peas to each plate. Drizzle with chive oil and buttermilk sauce. Serves 2.