"In Germany," says Hans Rockenwagner, "white asparagus is a true cult vegetable. Restaurants around Stuttgart, where some of the best white asparagus is grown, serve them in everything from soup to nuts." Every spring since opening his restaurant, Rockenwagner's, in Venice, he has celebrated the brief season of what he calls "the queen of vegetables."
The cult of the white asparagus has existed for centuries. A controversy still lingers, however: Should one eat white asparagus with one's fingers or with a knife and fork? Rockenwagner maintains that true aficionados prefer the finger method.
Among the asparagus dishes on Rockenwagner's menu this spring is the following French-influenced, California-style appetizer, which teams white asparagus with tuna carpaccio and a ginger remoulade. The dish can be prepared in advance and kept chilled until ready to serve.
Although many restaurant chefs such as Rockenwagner use imported European asparagus, most of the fresh white asparagus sold in California markets is from the Americas. During the brief spring season, which will last for only another week or so, it comes from the Stockton area of the San Joaquin Valley. Peru and Chile are the main suppliers during the winter months, says Don La Londe of Valley Fruit & Produce Co. of Los Angeles.
A few tips from Rockenwagner on handling white asparagus: Because the stalks are covered with earth as they grow to prevent exposure to light, they are stringier than green asparagus and have thicker skins. Peeling the stalks is a must. Lay the asparagus on a firm surface while peeling to prevent the fragile stems from breaking. Cut off stem ends, up to 3 1/2 inches from tips, or keep longer, if desired.
Throwing out almost everything but the tips may seem wasteful, but that is part of the white asparagus mystique.
When available, white asparagus is sold at Irvine Ranch in the Beverly Center, Gelson's in Encino, Fruit & Produce Co. in L.A.'s Farmer's Market and other gourmet food stores.
HANS ROCKENWAGNER'S WHITE ASPARAGUS WITH TUNA CARPACCIO
2 pounds white asparagus, preferably medium to thick stalks
1 tablespoon butter
Juice of 1/2 lemon
6 green onion strands, wilted in hot water
Using vegetable peeler, peel asparagus stems starting from 2 inches below asparagus tip toward end, being sure to remove all outer skin. Place peeled asparagus immediately in cold water.
Bring oversized pot with water to boil. Add butter, sugar, lemon juice and season to taste with salt. Drop asparagus into boiling seasoned water and cook until al dente, about 5 to 10 minutes, depending on thickness of asparagus.
For each serving, bunch 4 or 5 asparagus. Cut stem ends, up to 3 1/2 inches from tip. Tie with green onion strand and place upright on plate, tips up.
Arrange Tuna Carpaccio slices around asparagus. Serve with Ginger Remoulade. Makes 6 servings.
Note: Green asparagus may be substituted for white.
1 (1/2-pound) sashimi-grade tuna fillet
1 tablespoon oil
Freshly ground pepper
Dash chili powder
Cut fillet into 2-inch squares. Combine oil, salt, pepper, paprika and chili powder to taste. Sprinkle all sides of tuna pieces with seasoned oil. Place on plate and chill until almost firm. Slice as thinly as possible.
2 tablespoons minced celery
2 tablespoons minced ginger root
2 tablespoons minced onion
1 tablespoon chopped capers
2 tablespoons minced parsley
1 cup mayonnaise
2 tablespoons catsup
1 tablespoon caper juice
Combine celery, ginger root, onion, capers, parsley, mayonnaise, catsup and caper juice in bowl. Mix well and chill 1 hour. Makes 1 1/2 cups.