But on to the first question: what is this mysterious Spargel?
Spargel is the white asparagus that is found everywhere in Germany each spring. The harvest usually begins in late April and runs through June. Unlike the delicate green spears that you find in the US and elsewhere, German Spargel is white, or perhaps more aptly described as entirely lacking in color. It grows under mounds of dirt, much like the potato, and when Spring rolls around it is dug up from its underground bed, emerging as a lonely, pale, ghostly spear. Unlike its thin green counterpart, the larger stalks of white asparagus are often considered the prime pick. Spargel can be quite fibrous and woody, so it must be peeled before being boiled or steamed (a lesson I learned the hard way!), and again unlike green asparagus which is best served al dente, white asparagus needs to be cooked longer (usually 10-20 minutes) so that it becomes tender and practically melts beneath your fork. It has a much milder, sweeter flavor than green asparagus, but can be used in many of the same preparations. However, Germans most commonly eat Spargel boiled, with a squeeze of lemon juice, then cloaked in hollandaise sauce. And it almost always comes with a side of boiled potatoes, and perhaps some smoked salmon.
Now I must admit that I have not yet become a true devotee of Spargel. I appreciate the vegetable, for sure, but the expectation and allure of Spargel season doesn’t hold me in thrall the way I might have expected. I do love the roadside stalls that spring up all over the city and countryside – it puts me in mind of summertime and mini-roadtrips around the US, when there is nothing better than stopping off at a country farmstand and buying a ripe peach that absolutely must be eaten at that very moment so that you can savor summer in its ultimate perfection… I wonder if Germans have the same sort of love and nostalgia for Spargel? Probably.
So anyway, when I got a bag of broken Spargel tips in my vegetable delivery this week, instead of going the traditional route, I decided to try something new. Why not turn the traditional pairing of Spargel and salmon into a flavorful, bright pasta? I've been on a bit of a lemon pasta kick lately (it's so easy, and the sharp citrusy flavor is perfect for Spring), and this proved to be an excellent base for the asparagus and salmon.
Lemon Pasta with White Asparagus and Smoked Salmon
This pasta is pretty simple and easily adaptable to your tastes. I list approximate ingredient amounts, but feel free to increase or decrease any of the ingredients, according to your taste. Also, I used shells, because that is what I had available. Penne would also be excellent. As would a whole-wheat pasta, if you want to make it a little healthier. I also used creme fraiche, which is widely available in Germany, but if it's hard to find, sour cream would work just as well (just, please, not the fat free type).
Oh! The other awesome thing about this pasta is that it is delicious hot or cold- it makes an excellent cold, packed lunch.
1-2 cups / 100-200 g uncooked pasta
1-2 cups / 200-300 g white asparagus
4 oz. / 100 g smoked salmon
1/2 cup / 100 g creme fraiche
1-2 lemons - juice and zest
approx 1 cup (large handful) flat-leaf parsley
1-2 cloves garlic
1 tablespoon olive oil
salt and pepper to taste
1. Put two pots of salted water on the stove to boil.
2. Use a vegetable peeler to peel the fibrous outer part away from the asparagus, starting about 1-2 inches from the tips. Slice the asparagus so that they are approximately the length of your thumb.
3. Boil the asparagus for 10 minutes.
4. In the meantime, get your pasta going simultaneously in the other pot.
5. While the asparagus and the pasta are cooking, heat a tablespoon of olive oil in a large frying pan on the stove, mince 1-2 garlic cloves (depending on how strong your garlic is and how much you like garlic). Once the oil is hot, throw in the garlic. Fry the garlic for approximately 30 seconds, at which point it should start to turn golden and you should smell the garlic aroma. Remove the frying pan from the heat because you don't want the garlic to burn.
6. Once the asparagus is ready, drain them and add them to the frying pan with the garlic and oil (it remains off the heat - you should no longer need to cook anything that is going into the pan).
7. Add the creme fraiche, the juice of one lemon, and then the pasta. Reserve some of the pasta water in case you need to add some liquid to the sauce.
8. Now mix in the zest from the lemon, the parsley, smoked salmon, salt and pepper. Taste and decide whether you want to add the juice from another lemon, depending on how citrusy you like your pasta. I usually go for the full two lemons.
9. Top with more fresh parsley and fresh parmesan before serving.