Saturday, April 29, 2017

White Asparagus, Photosynthesis, Dutch Treats

Everything your elementary school teachers told you about photosynthesis is true. I’m no expert but I can understand that white asparagus exists for our consumption through the magic of science and the painstaking care required to cultivate this special plant.

Asparagus season is a big deal in Holland. The white asparagus harvest is so highly anticipated that the Dutch call it witte goud, or “white gold.”

White Asparagus beds at Santspuy farm in Etten Leur, Netherlands

Traditionally, Dutch families who routinely dined at home would go out to a restaurant for a festive meal of white asparagus served with a special type of ham from the province of Gelderland. 

For trans-Atlantic travelers, these items also appeared in season on some vintage Holland-America Line menus. (Also, I'm happy to report that I have now discovered a whole new nerd playground in the New York Public Library online archives, fyi. Thanks, Google.)

Vintage Holland-America Line Menus (1899,1953)
New York Public Library Photo:

Michel recalls his father taking their family out for a seasonal treat of white asperges and Gelderland ham. (It was a welcome respite from his mother’s cooking.) 

He also related an anecdote about the late Amsterdam violin dealer Max Möller Jr., who would invite his best customers to his home for a special dinner of white asparagus, ham, and other goodies. 

Möller Shop (r), Willemsparkweg 15

Over the years, Michel spent a lot of time at the Möller shop at Willemsparkweg No.15, looking at violins and bows, asking questions (of course), talking with other violinists, generally just doing his thing in his element. He also acquired some of his more unusual eyeglass frames at the shop next door: Oog in Oog Optiek.

If you are lucky enough to be in northern Europe at this time of year, you will likely enjoy locally sourced, i.e. fresher, asparagus. White asparagus is produced mainly in Limburg, the southernmost Dutch province. This proximity to Belgium blurs the lines about whether it was the Flemish or the Dutch who started serving eggs and buttered potatoes with parsley to make a more substantial asparagus dish.

Traditional Dutch Style White Asparagus

The white asparagus currently available in U.S. food markets comes from Peru. You might notice that the spears are a bit shorter and stouter than green asparagus. 

Some people like to peel the white spears before cooking. You can probably guess which prep method Michel prefers. 

He recently bought one bunch of Peruvian white asparagus at our local supermarket and turned it into two dishes.

As soon as we got home he put the asparagus into a container of water. Why? “It makes them juicy.” 

Later when he was ready to cook, he cut about two inches off the stems and set them aside for making soup.

Michel decided to steam the asparagus for a few minutes. He can’t handle the commonplace boil-the-life-out-of whatever-you-cook method employed in Dutch home kitchens.

Keep an eye on your spears to make sure they are tender enough for your taste. White asparagus is slightly more fibrous than its skinny green relatives and it may need extra time.

Our seasonal white asparagus was topped with a sauce made from shallots, butter, lemon, and juniper berries. 

This is the same sauce Michel made for his version of boorenkoolstamppot. It’s definitely not vegan but it’s worth it once or twice a year. 

Here’s a re-post:

2 shallots, chopped
(coarsely chopped or ground)
1 stick of butter
Juice of one lemon
1 tablespoon dried juniper berries 
Salt and pepper

Melt butter in a small saucepan over low heat. Add shallots, lemon juice, and juniper berries, and a pinch of salt and pepper.

Plate steamed asparagus spears, add sauce, enjoy! 

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Italian Purgatory Beans, Roman Catholic Animals, and Michel's Favorite Dutch Writer

You know you're a hardcore vegetarian when you get excited about discovering a new kind of bean. Michel is very inventive with his vegetarian/vegan cooking but he's always on the lookout for new things to make. Recently we read about an organically grown heirloom bean that comes from the small Italian community of Gradoli,* not far from Rome. 

*Etymology tangent for my fellow word nerds: 
The name Gradoli probably originates from the series of steps (from the Latin gradusone had to climb  to reach the castle built there in the Middle Ages. Long-suffering piano students and teachers will of course make the connection with Debussy's "Dr. Gradus ad Parnassum," his parody of Carl Czerny's piano exercises. 

Gradoli, Italy

On every Ash Wednesday since the year 1600 the town has organized a community lunch, Pranzo del Purgatorio, to mark the end of carnival season and the beginning of Lent. The featured dish: Fagioli del Purgatorio. It's easy enough to understand the rationale for cleansing and purification after a big celebration but my non-Catholic brain has always wondered if purgatory isn't just another unnecessary guilt trip invented by religious leaders centuries ago to make sure their illiterate flocks didn't get out of line. I'm guessing that images like this Fra Angelico painting of The Last Judgment would have been enough to (literally) scare the hell out of wayward parishioners. 

Despite the name, purgatory beans are a totally guilt-free alternative to their less dainty Italian relatives, cannellini and borlotti beans. After checking local stores to no avail, Michel found an importer of Italian food products online and ordered three packages of fagioli del purgatorio right away. The Gustiamo website (← linked here) offers a variety of items and the company ships from its offices in The Bronx. Easy.

Although he doesn't consider himself to be a religious person, Michel has an unexpected soft spot for the Roman Catholic Church. He moved from Amsterdam to Rome as a young man to study the violin with Alberto Lysy. While in Rome, Michel lived in a building owned by the Dutch Roman Catholic Church. His neighbor across the hall was Ben Hemelszoet (whose surname aptly means "heaven sweet"), a Professor in Exegesis at the Catholic University in Amsterdam. Ben and Michel had extensive and ongoing discussions about all things Catholic, in particular the Second Ecumenical Council taking place at The Vatican during the time both of them were living there. 

Visiting the Cathedral in Como, Italy, July 2016

Michel's unlikely attitude toward the Roman Catholic Church is underscored by his favorite Dutch writer, Gerard Reve, who became a Catholic in 1966 and at the same time made it known that he was gay. His irreverent humor and writing style made him a larger-than-life figure in Dutch culture and generated controversy even in the relatively liberal Netherlands. 

Gerard Reve

As a Mariologist, Reve had an obvious reverence for the figure of Mary. From this liturgical point of view, he interpreted the church doctrines to include all sentient beings. Reve considered birds--especially songbirds--and most notably the innocent lamb to be of the highest order, hence his claim that animals must also be Catholic because of their utter innocence and absolute devotion. In a more humorous vein, Reve also wrote that, upon their arrival in Heaven, well-behaved animals would be given nicely fitted clothing. 

Michel has determined that our four Cavalier King Charles Spaniels are Catholic because of their loving, devoted nature and the fact that they come from Irish stock. I can think with that. Reve's works are largely unknown in the U.S. but one of his most famous novels, "The Evenings," was translated into English just last year, seven decades after its 1947 publication. 

Now you know the back story and it's time to get back to the business of purgatory beans. 

This dish takes four cooking implements and about 90 minutes for prep/cook time. You will need one stock pot for cooking the beans, a large skillet for preparing the vegetables, a device for steaming, and your favorite pot for boiling eggs. 


2 cups of purgatory beans, soaked overnight
1 fennel bulb, chopped
1 bunch of parsley, chopped
5-6 stems of fresh kale, leaves removed and chopped
1 whole onion, peeled
½ an onion, chopped
2 large carrots, chopped
1½ cups of fresh peas (frozen peas will do)
1 lemon for grating zest
5-6 garlic cloves, chopped
6 cloves
2-3 tablespoons of olive oil
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
2 bay leaves
1 teaspoon dried rosemary 
(or a stem of fresh rosemary if you have it)
1 teaspoon of fennel seed ground into powder


To garnish:
4 eggs, boiled
6-8 small heirloom “rainbow” carrots 

Part One: The Beans

Place soaked beans in a large stock pot. Cover with water.

Cut onion in half and stick three cloves into each half.

Add onion halves, bay leaves and rosemary to the pot.

Bring to a boil, reduce heat and cook for about an hour 
(two hours if beans are not pre-soaked). 

Meanwhile, steam the peas and heirloom carrots. 
Set aside.

When the beans are done, add 2 teaspoons of salt and some red pepper if you like.

Add the steamed peas to the pot. Stir gently to mix.

Part Two: Prepare the veggies while the beans are cooking.

In a 3-quart skillet:

Heat 2-3 tablespoons of olive oil.
Add chopped onion, garlic, fennel, and carrots.

“Sweat” the vegetables in olive oil.

When they are done, add chopped parsley, fennel seed powder, red pepper flakes, salt and pepper to taste.

Add chopped kale and let it cook down.

Also add a bit more salt if needed.

Putting it all together:

Pour off excess liquid from beans, saving 
some liquid in a container.

Add cooked vegetables to beans and peas.
Mix gently with a wooden spoon.

Add some bean liquid to make it “sort of soupy.”

Top with grated lemon zest.

Garnish with boiled eggs (halved) 
and heirloom carrots. Serve.

Enjoy all the purgatory bean goodness without the perils of actual purgatory.