White asparagus is a national obsession in Germany this time of year. Many restaurants there offer special dinner menus with asparagus in every course. Chef John Schuster of Houston's Charivari Restaurant (2521 Bagby, 713-521-7231) once owned an eatery in Germany's Black Forest region, so we called him to see if he had any white asparagus on his Houston menu.
"I was the first one in town with white asparagus this year," says Schuster dramatically. "I brought it in because I wanted to kick off my special asparagus menu early."
Schuster explains that this is the second year in a row he has brought the white asparagus tradition to Houston. "And every year I do new recipes -- I am very proud of that. It is such a great item, and it's the perfect weather here in the spring to eat asparagus. I was just on the phone with my brother in Germany; he has a restaurant over there. They're having a hard time getting good asparagus right now. And nobody is ready to eat it yet; the weather in Europe is still too cold."
White asparagus, Schuster explains, is regular asparagus, but it's grown underground in big dirt mounds so that the sun never turns it green. Unlike the tiny stalks of green asparagus Americans are used to, European white asparagus is best when it's very thick.
"They grow it in California, but they only grow little tiny ones, the size of your little finger," Schuster says. "I guess it's because people here don't know how to cook it. You have to peel white asparagus. In fact, in Germany, a restaurant with a lazy chef that doesn't peel the asparagus properly gets a bad reputation."
Right now, you can find white asparagus in Belgium, Germany and France. "I don't use the Spanish," says Schuster, "because the tips are violet or green. They take them out too late In Germany, it's like a law that you can't harvest white asparagus after June 24."
So what are this year's special asparagus dishes at Charivari? "I have a new asparagus salad with foie gras that's very unique; it's served with a strawberry-champagne coulis," Schuster says. "I also have a blanched asparagus with béarnaise that's served with grilled kangaroo "
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"Yes, from Australia. It's amazing meat, very tender," he says. "I do sweetbreads with asparagus too -- that dish is very popular. And then I also do an asparagus soufflé. Of course, we have to offer white asparagus with Black Forest ham. We came from there, and that combination is an old tradition.
"And for lunch, we have 'Charivari asparagus toast,' toasted French bread and a slice of Black Forest ham with blanched white asparagus topped with a mousseline sauce (that's like a lighter version of hollandaise). Then I put grated Gruyère cheese on top and gratinée it. It's a perfect lunch!"
It sounds like the asparagus toast would go well with a glass of champagne, but Schuster has another idea. "Actually, I would recommend some Shepherd's Ridge sauvignon blanc from New Zealand," he says. "I tell everybody, don't drink dry wine with asparagus. Asparagus has a tiny bit of bitterness. You need a little roundness in the wine. We have an Alsatian pinot gris from Trimbach that is a little demi-sec as well. With asparagus, it's wunderbar!"