Friday, April 30, 2010

Everything you Ever Wanted to Know about ... Asparagus

Margaret, the author of one of my favorite blogs, Life in Laroque, had a question in the comments to my post below:  "Now what I need to know is.... how do the Germans like their asparagus? White, huge, phallic (and in my opinion a bit soapy and tasteless) like the French, or thin, green and full of flavour like the English? Or somewhere in between?"

As you can see from the picture below that was taken at the Kleinmarkthalle, both types of asparagus are available here.

Asparagus at the Kleinmarkthalle

As you probably also can tell from the picture, the white asparagus is more prevalent here. In the US, I don't recall ever seeing white asparagus while growing up. Perhaps it now is available. The reason the asparagus is white is because it grows in mounds of dirt and, ideally, never sees the light of day until harvested. May is the best month for asparagus in Germany, and we only eat it seasonally. If your white asparagus has a purple tip, this means that it was allowed to grow above the top of the mound and was exposed to daylight. I admit that white asparagus was an acquired taste. After having had a few pleasant meals with white asparagus, a few years ago I decided to try out different qualities to see whether price made a difference. There is a whole body of information about the different quality levels and how best to buy and store asparagus. You can pay up to EUR 15 per kilo for the top quality white asparagus here.  Here is some more info on "Spargel", which is the German word for asparagus and which, apparently, has made its way into the English language to refer to the white asparagus.

To make a long story short, I quickly worked my way up to the top of the heap. There was an asparagus stand outside Frankfurt's top kitchen store that basically was selling asparagus that had been harvested in the morning just south of Frankfurt in the Rheinland-Pfalz. Local sayings emphasize that the best asparagus is harvested in the morning and eaten with the afternoon meal.  It was expensive but worth every cent. There are several important asparagus centers near Frankfurt, so obtaining really fresh asparagus is quite easy. I assume that "terroir" also plays an important role in the taste of the asparagus, so I can only speak of local products. Just as I've never had better tasting potatoes than in Germany, it may be that German white asparagus is better than its foreign cousins.

The key signs of freshness are: 1. the asparagus base should be moist, not dry; if you squeeze it, a bit of juice should  come out (don't go there, Margaret.); and 2. when you rub the asparagus together, they should squeak lightly.  If you manage to find top quality white asparagus, wrap them in a damp towel and keep them refrigerated until you are ready to prepare them, preferably the same day. Buy a decent peeler -- there are special peelers for the white asparagus -- and try to peel off the stringy skin completely without removing too much of the underlying flesh.  The stringy skin has a bitter taste.  Unlike green asparagus, you need to peel the entire white asparagus from just below the head to the base.  Normally, you cut off the first one or two centimeters from the base as well.  Cook the asparagus just long enough so that they are done but not too soft (the thicker German asparagus take between 8 and 10 minutes).  Another trick to enhance the mildness and flavor is to first cook the skin peels in the water to create a base and to add a bit of salt and sugar to the water.  I have even seen recipes that add butter to the water.

I only eat white asparagus served in one of two ways. A classic meal here is freshly cooked asparagus with unsalted butter and cooked potatoes (Salzkartoffeln).  Just add a glass of good white wine (Riesling or Chardonnay grapes go quite well) and enjoy.  For a heartier version, make fried potatoes with onion and diced ham (Bratkartoffeln mit Speck). [I have yet to begin my opus on German Potato Culture.]  Alternatively, make a vinaigrette dressing and chill the asparagus for a fantastic appetizer.  The asparagus that we had yesterday were a bit soft, but had a great, mild flavor.
I like green asparagus.  Sometimes it has a metallic taste, but once in a while we eat it just for variety.  In the restaurants here you almost never see green asparagus.  If you order "Spargel", it will be white.  The most interesting asparagus that I've eaten was during a short vacation in Alsace along the wine route south of Strasbourg. Friends of ours had been going to the village for years and were regulars at a restaurant that served upscale local fare. We're not talking about Michelin star quality, just authentic regional food with an attention to season.  One May evening, wild asparagus was on the menu.  I did not even know it existed and did not know what to expect.  When my meal arrived, there was a generous portion of what looked like wild grass on my plate. The stems were only a few millimeters wide. The stems were tender, the flavor, delicate, and the homemade hollandaise sauce turned it into a memorable dish.

Wild Asparagus

I have now made a mental note to myself to prepare a trio of asparagus(es) if I can find all three in the coming days.

To paraphrase Sigmund Freud, it may be
a phallus symbol, but it's also an asparagus.

Let me know if you are able to duplicate my results, Margaret.  We're trying to improve Franco-German-UK-US cooperation here.  Which reminds me of an international joke.  A group of leading intellectuals from France, Germany, the UK and USA were at a conference.  Someone suggested a competition to last one year.  Each group of nationalities would produce a work about the elephant, and they would compare results the next year.  I'll finish the joke in the comments.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Showing Someone Around Frankfurt

My one major gripe is that very few people whom we know take the time to visit Frankfurt.  One of my "virtual clients", for whom I have worked for years without ever meeting, was flying out of Frankfurt yesterday, and I convinced her to spend a few hours in town with us.  It was a beautiful day.  Mrs. Bloggerboy and I took her to the Café Siesmayer for lunch, making a quick detour through the Palmengarten, and sat out on the restaurant's terrace. 

Café Siesmayer at the edge of the Palmengarten

There was a special seasonal asparagus menu, and the asparagus was Grade A delicious. I even treated myself to a glass of Rheingauer Riesling that went perfectly with the asparagus. After that I took my client on a two-hour walk through the Westend, past beautiful late 19th century villas and the main synagogue to the Opernplatz, down the Fressgass and Goethe Strasse to the Zeil and then to the Kleinmarkthalle.  After that we walked the few hundred meters past the Paulskirche to the Römer and out over the Main River on the pedestrian bridge for a great view of the city. We then walked back to the Dom and took the subway home. In two hours I was able to give a visitor a pretty quick introduction to a few of the highpoints of the city on foot. I hope that was enough to whet her appetite for a future visit. Frankfurt is not really a beautiful city, even though it has some great green areas. There are just too many plain buildings put up after the war, and some parts of the town can be pretty congested. But if you let me show the place through my eyes on foot or bike, you'll understand why I like it here. It is one of the most livable cities in the world, a great blend of big and small.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Beer + Bike = Bierbike

A Bierbike in Berlin (Wiki Commons)

A couple of days ago when I was on my way into town I stopped at a light next to a Bierbike that had been rented by a group of partiers.  It reminded me that I meant to post about the increasing frequency of sightings.  In Frankfurt, you only see the Bierbikes parked or in areas where bicycles are permitted.  I doubt that they are allowed on the streets.  Add to that the fact that bike riders also have strict blood alcohol limits, then you know that the "driver" is either hired or a designated driver, presumably hired as part of the package.  I put "driver" in quotes, because if you look closely at the picture, you see that some of the drinkers also have pedals.  One hopes that someone sober has the ability to disengage the gears.  The Bierbike Kodex discusses other problems associated with the Bierbike, e.g., what to do when you have to go to the bathroom and what happens if you show up for the Bierbike drunk.  Imagine the liability issues in the US!  I like the concept but doubt that I will ever hire one myself.  Then again, if I become a more avid soccer fan, this could happen to me.  It is, after all, a World Cup year.  I've seen Eintracht Frankfurt fans getting warmed up on Bierbikes before a game.  There is an alcohol ban in the stadium, so some folks like to stock up before they enter the stadium.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Back in the Saddle

I rode to the bike store to get a new saddle for Bloggerboy Junior's bike. Riding a bike with no saddle is a strange experience. That was my first ride of the season. Someone stole the saddle off the bike while it was in the cellar this winter. I’m almost 100% sure that it was NOT one of the neighbors. I have a theory or two, but it is useless to speculate. The up side of having a quick release saddle pole is that it is easy to adjust, but boy they are easy to steal, too.

Anyhow, the weather has been fantastic, so on Friday afternoon I rode my bike over to Bornheim to pick up a few videos from our favorite store and to drink a coffee at one of my favorite cafes. Man, I need the exercise. My BMI is over 25 right now -- not by much, but I have to get rid of five kilos to look respectable again.

Bornheim is an interesting mix of young, slightly-alternative types and old Frankfurt. Many decades ago it was a village that housed numerous apple wine pubs and a flourishing prostitution industry – the “happy village”. The older part of Bornheim still has numerous quaint apple wine pubs, but prostitution, at least the kind tolerated by the City of Frankfurt, is now limited to the area around the main train station. There are reasonably-priced apartments and a lively street life in Bornheim. The Berger Strasse, Bornheim’s main north-south artery is the single best street for cafe sitting and for independent shops. It is a narrow street with speed bumps and a 30 km/hr. speed limit. The upper Berger Strasse also has a street market twice a week that is one of the best in Frankfurt. It only takes me about 15 minutes on my bike to get to the lower Berger Strasse using the Wallanlagen, a thin park that runs around the perimeter of the center city and that used to be part of the medieval fortifications against invaders.

So, on a quiet, sunny Friday afternoon I was sitting in one of my favorite cafes in Bornheim far from the international bustle of downtown, feeling anonymous in the middle of Germany. After a while, I noticed that the people at the table next to me and the table behind me were speaking non-native English. Next to me were two Scandinavian women who had been speaking their native language until a German fellow joined them, and they all spoke English. I did not look at the people behind me, but I guess that a German was speaking English with a foreign guest. Americans may take this kind of incident for granted, but I still marvel at just how widespread English is as a lingua franca, even off the beaten path, and I consider myself privileged to have absorbed the language with mother’s milk. I eavesdropped on the three students chatting in their pleasantly accented English. One of the women made a comment that a fellow not present at the table was extremely nice. The German fellow immediately offered (with a slightly teasing tone) to tell the fellow that she felt that way, and the Scandinavian woman declined, stating that she never fell for nice guys. Her friend reminded her that her most recent boyfriend actually was pretty nice. She paused and then agreed. They then mentioned another guy, and the first woman said with relish, “he’s a real devil.” The German fellow claimed that he was only pretending to be nice, and that they had yet to see him with his mask off. The women giggled. And so it goes on the merry-go-round.

This has the making of an intense film weekend again. More later.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Got to Get You Into my Life

The Shuffle

Back in 2008, we took a big trip out West.  I used my credit card so frequently that I received a free Ipod Shuffle from my card company. Shortly after that they lowered my credit limit. That's gratitude for you. I finally got around to using it -- the Shuffle -- these past weeks.  Music used to play a big part in my life.  I don't know if it is the thin walls in our multifamily building, my constant tinnitus, or just a life phase, but I've not listened to much music these past years. Sure, we go to a couple of concerts each year -- usually classic or jazz -- but I'm really out of touch except through the kids. Anyway, I spent the better part of an afternoon converting most of my CDs to play on my Shuffle. I've got tons of music now, mostly blues, jazz and rock. I play the random selection setting until I find an album that I'm in the mood for, and then I often shift to sequence, and go back to the beginning of the album for all the songs. I'm sure I date myself by thinking of great songs by their position on a particular vinyl side. Here Comes the Sun is part of an incredibly flowing album side (Abbey Road side 2) that needs to be listened to in one sitting. I'm sure that it was designed that way. The same goes for side 2 of The Cars eponymous album. I love the way the songs flow together and how the album ends with a saxophone solo fading out on All Mixed Up. I sufferered through the Days of Disco, and The Cars were one of the first US groups to signal the new wave of music that I liked to hop up and down to. Add in Patty Smith, The Clash, Elvis Costello, Joe Jackson, and it was morning in America.

Sooner or later I have to invest in the right equipment to digitalize the music on my vinyl collection.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Oops, I did it again, or, a Rare Silence

As with so many other aspects of my life, I have phases of intense activity and then phases of relative stasis.  For some reason, I just was not in a blogging phase this past month. I'm busy with work, but also enjoying a phase of social and family activity.

Today is an amazingly quiet Sunday morning.  Air traffic has been blocked for two or three days now in Frankfurt because of the volcano in Iceland.  There are no signs of volcanic ash and a clear blue sky with no airplane sounds.  I like having the airport nearby, but you don't really notice the air traffic until it is no longer there. Nice.

I wonder what the net CO2 effect is when we subtract the
lack of airplane flights from the volcanic eruption?
Here is one thought.
Here's another.