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Duke's Food Obsession

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Frische Spargel

If you speak German, you have an idea about what I am attempting to write about. If you don’t well, don’t worry, mein deutsch is limited, so the rest of this will be in grammatically incorrect English.

After college, I became a trainee at a German steel export company—the company that, at the time, my father worked for. This was both my idea and his: I thought it sounded cool, and he wanted me to experience the “Fatherland” and maybe pick up the lingo at the same time.

My first day, after signing up for intensive language study at the Goethe Institut, I went out to investigate my surroundings, became disoriented in the early afternoon dusk, darted out in front of a car, and was plowed over at 35 mph. Good first day. I’d recount the rest of the trip to you, but let’s just say it went downhill from there: six months in Essen Germany—the Ruhrgebeit or Ruhr region, easily one of the uglier areas of all of Germany. In fact, I told my father, there is no wonder Germans produce so many quality products: with the dreary weather and surroundings, you could either lay down on the S-bahn tracks, or just work like hell.

This is not to say, of course, that there weren’t bright spots, and flat-out beautiful places. Some highlights were the six weeks I spent In Rothenberg ob der Tauber, a beautiful walled city in Frankenland, and the two weeks with friends in Munich and Bavaria. But, me being me, what I enjoyed most was the food and drink (read: beer).

I was fortunate to spend a few weeks in northern Germany during the spring. This meant living with my aunt in the small town of Neuenfelde where my dad grew up. I would train into Hamburg daily to spend seemingly endless hours doing absolutely nothing but reading telexes (now that dates me ) in a fantastic old office building on the Inner Alster. And it was here, I was introduced to frische spargel—or fresh asparagus. Indeed, one of the cool quirky things about this place in Hamburg was that daily, your office would get a knock on the door, and a guy would walk in peddling farm fresh eggs, or whatever vegetable that was in season. This particular season it was asparagus—the thick, all-white variety. So, being a good nephew, and curious and bored, I bought a kilo and brought it home.

Little did I realize that the Germans hold the asparagus in very high regard. Maybe because it’s a harbinger of warmer weather, or just that it’s great tasting, but the Germans celebrate asparagus season with relish. Many restaurants have entire spargel menus, roadside stands compete on quality and price, and asparagus seems to everywhere for a short time. And, like any food harvested during its own proper season and not flown jillions of miles in the off-season from a different hemisphere, the asparagus tastes brilliant.

This love of asparagus at spring was only strengthened when I went back to Northern California, specifically the Bay Area peninsula. Yes, the “C-word” has lots of fruits and nuts, but come springtime, the asparagus explodes as do the beautiful green globes of artichokes. When you see these two beauties come down in price, and go up in quantity in the grocery stores, you know it’s spring and warm weather is sure to follow.

To serve spargel, my favorite way is the way meine tante showed me. At least in Nuenfelde, they serve asparagus with boiled baby new potatoes and ham. And it’s not that pathetic, water-added crap ham we often see here. No, their ham is the smoked, cured uncooked ham, they simply call schinken, or ham, but we would call Westphalian Ham. (They also call the heavier smoked variety, my personal favorite, schwarzwaldschinken, or Black Forest ham, but too often here it is not the real deal at all, but a cooked deli ham, so I am hesitant to mention it.)

To prepare, my aunt cooks the peeled asparagus in boiling water with a bit of salt and sugar. The potatoes are, of course, taken from her garden after she shoes away the neighbor’s cat who likes the litter-box consistency of the garden’s dirt. She boils the potatoes until fork tender. Then, the potatoes are served with the asparagus and diced ham. Oh, and butter. Lots of butter.

 This is easily one of the simplest and most soul-satisfying meals that I know. Of course, you can go Italian with your asparagus and serve them steamed with a couple of farm fresh, sunny-side up eggs, some grated parmesan and a few twists of black pepper. But whatever you do, put spargel in a prime spot on your menu this time of year. Yes, it makes your pee smell funny. But it also means that the days are getting longer and warmer…

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Duke Diercks Duke Diercks is the owner of Duke’s Cowboy Grill in Ponderay. Visit his blog at www.bbq-recipes-for-foodies.com

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