I have a date with destiny. An annual but moveable feast, this year occurring a little earlier than usual thanks to a snow free winter and kind spring.
Each year I look forward to the British Asparagus season more and more. I’m no longer fooled or seduced by woody substitutes hailing from Peru, instead I prefer to wait for the homegrown spears and gorge myself silly over a period of just a few weeks.
This year I’m a little ahead of schedule and well into my gorging period which began when my local fruit van rolled around with the first British asparagus spears in late April. I have to admit they weren’t quite there yet, but as they were the first of the season I was willing to forgive their imperfections.
By now you should be able to source absolutely perfect asparagus, you don’t want anything too fat or fibrous, just about the thickness of your pinkie is perfect and they should be firm and rigid. The best way to test asparagus is to hold it by the tips, one end between your left thumb and forefinger and the other between your right thumb and forefinger, apply a bit of downward pressure until the spear arcs and eventually snaps. It should break with a clean satisfying snap.
Having established your asparagus is snappy fresh, proceed with caution, combining it with strong, overpowering flavours in fanciful dishes will simply mask that peculiar, bittersweet hit. Instead go simple, soft boil an egg – a duck if you really must go wild – sit down and get dunking, and sooking.
Here are a few other simple ways with asparagus:
Elizabeth David’s Sauce Gribiche
This classic Elizabeth David sauce is a bit like salsa verde but the egg gives it an unctuous, creamy finish. It is the perfect accompaniment to asparagus and chicken, somehow cold, roast leftovers fit the bill, maybe with some new potatoes, but don’t let that put you off roasting, or grilling your chook fresh.
1 greedy bunch fresh British asparagus
2-3 free range eggs
1tbsp shallot, or onion, very finely chopped
1tbsp cornichons, or gherkins finely chopped
1tbsp of parsley, finely chopped
A strip, or two of lemon zest, finely chopped
1tsp Dijon mustard
2tbsp of white wine vinegar
300 ml oil
salt and pepper to taste
Cook the asparagus either by plunging into boiling water for around 4mins, or steaming for around 8mins, until the spears are just tender at their thickest point.
Meanwhile, boil the eggs until the yolks are squidgy – better a little runny than hard and dry. Drain and, still in their shells, cool in cold water.
Mix the shallot, cornichons, parsely and lemon zest in a bowl, add the Dijon and white wine vinegar whisking as you go. Halve the eggs and separate the yolks from the whites. Add the squidgy yolks, mashing them into the mix, finely chop the whites and set aside. Begin adding the olive oil, whisking continuously until you have a smooth shiny consistency. Season to taste and add the chopped egg whites.
Alternatively you can process the lot using a food processor or hand blender then add the chopped egg white, the result will be smoother and less rustic but just as tasty.
Serve alongside the asparagus, and perhaps the chicken. Just a dab of the sauce is enough to pep things up without overpowering.
From French Provincial Cooking, by Elizabeth David.
Ribboned asparagus salad with avocado dressing
This recipe hails from a much more contemporary and experimental source, a book called Green Kitchen Stories, written by two impossibly cool Scandi types who can cook, look good and all the usual things the rest of struggle to do. They are of course strictly vegetarian but I reckon this delicious, virtuous salad is best served with a juicy char grilled lamb steak, that might or might not have been lightly smothered in a mashed garlic and anchovy paste.
16 cherry tomatoes
100g flat-leaf parsley
20g Parmesan, freshly grated
For the dressing
3 tbsp olive oil
3 tbsp lemon juice, freshly squeezed
½ ripe avocado, stone removed
Salt and black pepper
Snap off the tough ends of the asparagus (as above). Using a vegetable peeler and starting from the bottom end of the asparagus, shave upwards to create thin ribbons. Place all the ribbons in a large serving bowl.
Slice the cucumber lengthways and cut into bite-size pieces. Cut the tomatoes in half and coarsely chop the parsley. Add these to the bowl.
Place the dressing ingredients in a blender and blitz until creamy. Add a dash of oil or water if necessary. Dress and toss the salad so it’s evenly coated.
Top with Parmesan shavings, and serve with your juicy lamb steak.
Risotto with Asparagus
Risotto may take slightly more effort to throw together than the previous two recipes but it’s light, creamy comfort is suited to spring days that turn into cold evenings and the wonderful thing about this dish is that the wonderful asparagus flavour is carried into every morsel, instead of an intense nibble from a single spear the whole risotto is infused with asparagus.
1.25l chicken stock made with 1 stock cube
1 onion, finely chopped
750ml, 1 bottle dry white wine
350g Arborio rice
3-4 tbsp grated Parmesan cheese
Wash and peel the asparagus. Cut or snap off the tips and set aside. Boil the stalks in the stock until very tender. Lift them out and puree them in a food processor or blender with a little of the stock. Strain any hard stringy bits and return the asparagus puree to the pan with the stock. In another saucepan, steam, or boil the asparagus tips in salted water until only just tender.
In a large pan, fry the onion in half the butter until soft. Add the rice and stir, coating the grains in the butter. Pour in the wine, bring to the boil, add salt and pepper, and simmer gently, stirring all the time. Add the stock with asparagus puree a ladle at a time, as it becomes absorbed, stirring often, if not always. Keep going until the rice is creamy and al dente, some people like their rice with more bite than others, it’s really a matter of taste. If you run out of stock add a little water.
Stir in the remaining butter and Parmesan. Serve with asparagus tips as a garnish, or stirred through the risotto if you prefer.
Italians would serve this as a starter but for me it’s the main event usually with a soft, green leaved salad.
From Food of Italy by Claudia Roden.