Saturday, April 20, 2013


Cultivated green asparagus.

In Spain, asparagus comes in three sorts, the wild, the cultivated and the processed.

Wild asparagus, known as esparragos trigueros, “wheat-field” asparagus, because it often grows on the verges of fields, sends up spindly shoots after early spring rains. It’s part of traditional country cooking in Andalusia (southern Spain) and La Mancha (central Spain). Kids still go out hunting wild asparagus after the rainy season.

The spears of wild asparagus are somewhat bitter and fibrous. Usually they are cooked in boiling water first, then sauteed in olive oil and incorporated in a tortilla.

Cultivated asparagus, both green and white, is grown in Andalusia (in particular, Granada province, where the green-purple asparagus from Huétor-Tajar has PGI—Protected Geographic Indication), Navarra (white asparagus with PGI), Aranjuez (near Madrid), and Extremadura.

Some years ago, on assignment for Spain Gourmetour magazine, I visited an asparagus plantation in Extremadura. Here is my report.

Spring comes very early to the Valle de Tiétar, a region west of Madrid in Extremadura. By mid-February, the cherry trees are already in flower and the storks are busy tidying up their nests atop roofs and towers. After several days of rain, the Tiétar River, lined with trees, fairly gushes along its banks. The backdrop of the Sierra de Gredos is still frosted with snow.

On the asparagus farm, bordered by the river, puddles remain in troughs between mounds of earth. But the soil, covered with plastic to trap the sun's heat, is warm to the touch. It takes a sharp eye to spot the slight crack in the soil's surface, indicating a stem pushing its way up through the mounded soil. If missed today, by tomorrow it will have poked through to the light, and its white tip turned to violet, decreasing its market value by nearly half.

The freshly-picked asparagus is quickly put through a cold-water shower. Chilling keeps the asparagus from becoming fibrous. It’s ready for shipping fresh—a luxury product in northern-European markets—or for canning.

Canned white asparagus.
White asparagus in cans or jars is highly prized in Spain. Perhaps it is the silky, non-fibrous texture that makes canned asparagus so esteemed. (There is a Spanish saying, disparaging of woody asparagus: Quien nísperos come, esparragos chupa, bebe cerveza y besa a una vieja, ni come, ni chupa, ni bebe, ni besa. He who eats loquats, sucks asparagus, drinks beer and kisses an old woman, neither eats, nor sucks, nor drinks, nor kisses.) And another: Esparragos—los de abril para mi, los de mayo para el amo, y los de junio para ninguno. April’s asparagus (the best), for me; asparagus in May (less good), for the master, and that of June, for no one.

Asparagus in the Kitchen
Long ago, following proper French technique, I used to peel asparagus. It was a time-consuming, but oddly rewarding task. I also used to “steam” it upright in a narrow pan, so the tips were never submerged. I neither peel nor steam anymore.

I cook asparagus in a wide, flat skillet, just deep enough to hold the asparagus in a single layer. How long to cook? To keep the spears a little crisp, 5 minutes in boiling water is long enough. A stalk should just barely bend across a fork. Another way is to put the asparagus into boiling water, bring to a rolling boil again then cover and turn off the heat and leave for 30 minutes. I serve asparagus, room temperature, with extra virgin olive oil and lemon. Maybe a dollop of mayonnaise for the kids.

If I’m making a revuelto, chopped asparagus scrambled with eggs and green garlic shoots, I don’t cook the asparagus in water at all. I sauté it in olive oil until crisp-tender.

Canned asparagus is a classic garnish for Spanish mixed salad (recipe). It’s also served with dos salsas—homemade mayonnaise and a vinaigrette with chopped egg, onion, red and green pepper. Asparagus is especially good with salty foods such as ham, smoked salmon, cheese. It's a lovely foil for rich sauces. It's a natural with seafood such as sole, hake, salmon, shrimp.

Asparagus Andalusian style, with eggs.

Esparragos a la Andaluza
Asparagus, Andalusian Style

This is such a classic preparation for wild asparagus that when other vegetables are cooked in the same manner, they are called “esparragado,” as in, espinacas esparragadas, or “asparagussed” spinach. The asparagus is chopped and blanched, then cooked in a sauce seasoned with garlic and pimentón and thickened with bread. Other foraged greens, such as tagarninas, the stems of wild thistles, are prepared in a similar manner. (More about tagarninas here.) This recipe is for cultivated green asparagus. If desired, use part ordinary sweet pimentón and part smoked pimentón.

Serves 4.

1 ½ pounds green asparagus
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 cloves garlic
1 slice bread, crusts removed
1 teaspoon pimentón (paprika)
¼ teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon wine vinegar
1 cup water
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Chopped serrano ham (optional)
1 egg per person

Snap off and discard butt ends of asparagus. Cut the spears crosswise into 1 ½-inch pieces. Blanch in boiling water for 2 minutes. Drain and refresh in cold water.

Heat the oil in a cazuela or skillet. Fry the garlic and bread until golden on both sides. Remove. In a blender or with a mortar and pestle grind the garlic, bread, pimentón, cumin and vinegar to a paste, adding ½ cup water.

Add the blanched asparagus to the oil in the cazuela and sauté for 2 minutes. Stir in the garlic paste and the remaining ½ cup of water. Season with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring, until the asparagus is desired degree of tender, about 6 minutes. Sprinkle chopped ham, if using, over the asparagus.

Break one egg per person into the asparagus. Cover the cazuela or skillet and cook on medium heat until the whites are set and yolks still runny, 3 to 4 minutes. Serve immediately.

White asparagus, Basque style, with shellfish.
Esparragos Blancos a la Vasca
White Asparagus in Basque Style

Canned white asparagus is calibrated—extra fat, very thick, thick and medium. If you’re using the extra thick spears, you’ll need only about three spears per person, or two cans of about 390 grams (14 ounces) each.

Serves 4 as a starter.

    12 to 16 spears of canned white asparagus, drained
    ½ pound clams (such as Manila)
    5 tablespoons olive oil
    3 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped
    1 tablespoon flour
    1/3 cup white wine
    4 ounces peeled shrimp
    2 tablespoons cooked peas
    Salt to taste
    2 tablespoons chopped parsley
    1 hard-cooked egg, sliced

Cut the asparagus spears into thirds and reserve. Add 1 cup of water to the clams in a small pan. Cover and steam them open.

In an earthenware cazuela heat the oil and add the chopped garlic. Fry for a minute, then add the pieces of asparagus. Turn them in the oil for a few minutes, then sprinkle them with the flour. Add the wine and the strained liquid from the clams. Tilt the cazuela back and forth to combine or stir gently with a wooden spoon. Cook until sauce is thickened.

Add the peeled shrimp and peas and salt to taste and cook until shrimp is pink, about 5 minutes, adding additional water if sauce seems too thick. Immediately before serving from the same cazuela, add the clams and sprinkle with chopped parsley. Garnish with sliced egg.


  1. This looks really good. We have lots of asparagus at the moment - I'd never thought of serving it with shrimp. Sounds like a really nice idea...

    1. Healthy Epicurean: wonderful if you've got asparagus in the garden. I haven't been successful growing it--but lots at the market now. The recipe with shrimp can be made with green asparagus instead of white.