Spring is always an exciting season in gastronomy.
Winter produce, after all, finds itself a stronger continuation of the chilly autumnal harvests that continue to grow, but spring? It is a prismatic vegetable garden bursting into bloom, a season of colours that signal new life and lengthier sunshine-filled days.
Yet, alongside the hearty rows of vibrant spring vegetables sits the white asparagus: thick, spindly fingers that almost harken back to the spookier Halloween season.
The average consumer in Singapore may seem baffled at the produce. For the uninitiated, the white asparagus appears faddish, a genetically modified vegetable that’s just of a different colour to its green sibling. The prices at local grocers such as Cold Storage, don’t reflect the differences either: the white Peruvian variety sees itself going for S$2.25 per 100 gram, while the regular green asparagus is retailing at S$3.30 per 100 gram.
White asparagus is to green asparagus is as veal is to beef. Restauranteurs who know where to look for quality produce understand how valued these long, conical vegetables can be, especially in terms of price. According to Chef/Partner Simone Fraternali of Solo Ristorante, “(the white asparagus can) cost up to four times as much. So for example, the green asparagus might go for S$10 per kilogram, while the white asparagus can be up to $40 per kilogram.”
“I personally prefer the white asparagus from France and Germany. Of course, Italy has wonderful white asparagus as well, but it is difficult to get them here in Singapore,” chef Simone continues.
Besides resulting in a tender, sweeter taste than its green counterpart, the biggest difference in its price lies in the earliest part of the harvest: the growing process.
As the tip of each stalk sticks itself out of the ground, farmers have to cover it with mesh and straw on top to keep the light out. The idea behind this is simple science: the asparagus stalks aren’t given a chance to turn green due to the prevention of photosynthesis. It’s a painstaking, laborious process — young shoots that emerge in early spring can grow up seven inches in a day, so farmers have to continuously cover the stalks with straw or tarp as it grows.
The versatile ivory spear manifests itself onto many different dishes this season, mainly in Italian establishments, paired with meats, seafood or even on its own.
Zafferano, for instance, uses white asparagus that’s hailed from Bassano in the northern region of Italy in a no-waste Tagliatelle. The fibrous trimmings from the vegetable is simmered in the pasta sauce with deglazed white spring onion, while the rest of the stem is blanched and poached, serving as the perfect addition to the rich pasta and fresh summer truffle shavings.
Over at the Sichuan-Cantonese restaurant Min Jiang at Dempsey, they’ve also taken up the challenge to cook with the white asparagus this year, as part of their 2nd-anniversary menu (available till 31 May 2021). Here, chef Goh crafts a raft made with sautéed French white asparagus, forming a base for the naturally sweet pan-seared Boston lobster.
Given the seasonality of the produce, many restaurants choose to feature the white asparagus in a single dish alongside other spring dishes for variety. At Solo Ristorante, however, chef Fraternali is spotlighting the ingredient in as many ways as he possibly can: with an entire menu entitled ‘A Celebration of White Asparagus’, available from now to 30 June 2021.
I really wanted to showcase the versatility of this ingredient in one meal so that diners can savour the white asparagus in different ways.Chef/Partner Simone Fraternali, Solo Ristorante
After a myriad of dishes, including a soup, starters and mains, the menu rounds up with the Te’verde, a white asparagus-based gelato that sits in a crown of matcha and vanilla cremoso, and finished with some candied lemon. Crafting a mouthwatering vegetable-based gelato is a test not for the faint of heart, but chef Simone has clearly taken it in his stride.
“I thought it would be a nice and unique touch to the menu, and also given that pretty much every one loves gelato! I developed the recipe for this and the challenge in gelato is always to find the right balance of sweet and creamy. The white asparagus itself has an intrinsic sweetness laced with a herbaceous flavour, so it is a very good ingredient base for a gelato.”
(Hero and featured image: Braci)