Wednesday 20 April 2011

Festival of the asparagus

The asparagus came early this year, the first heads peeping out from the soil at the end of March and the first spears ready to pick a week later. We seem to have a head-start on the local supermarkets as well – their asparagus is still coming in from Peru. From now until the beginning of June we will be enjoying a Festival Of The Asparagus. This starts with lots of suppers of simply steamed or simmered spears, sometimes with melted butter, more often with a vinaigrette or mayonnaise-based dressing.

Steamed asparagus with balsamic dressed salad
I don’t have a special asparagus pan – a tall thin pan in which the stalks simmer in water while the tips cook in the rising steam. But I do have two frying pans, one small, one large. Short chunky asparagus stems cook in the small frying pan, long slender stems are laid in the larger one. Either way, the spears are simmered for around 3-5 minutes: I find just-picked, homegrown asparagus cooks in about half the time you would cook shop-bought spears for.

Asparagus spears are usually ready to pick just as the first of my salad leaves – usually the mustard and oriental leaves, and maybe some chervil – are big enough to constitute a salad, so the asparagus is served on a bed of mixed leaves. The dressing is just olive oil with a splash of balsamic vinegar and a very small pinch of salt and pepper.

Roast asparagus with saffron mayonnaise
I would love to write lyrically about the pleasure and the labour of love that is hand-making mayonnaise. Occasionally I will stir myself to make mayonnaise from scratch but only when I have thought of uses for about a pint of the stuff as inevitably my first batch will curdle and I will have to add the curdled mixture to a new starter to get it all to emulsify again. (Incidentally, why is it that the second batch of mayonnaise never curdles when the first batch so often does?)

Most of the time, however, this saffron mayonnaise involves two good tablespoonfuls of Hellman’s (the real stuff, mind, not reduced fat, or the sunflower oil version), with a crushed (small) clove of garlic, and a pinch of saffron strands warmed in a tablespoon of the best olive oil in the house whisked in. If possible, it helps to leave this in the fridge for an hour or so before you eat it.

Roast asparagus – get the oven on at 200 degrees, and put a little olive oil in a shallow pan or roasting tin – something that will go over a flame on the hob and then into the oven. Heat the oil gently on the hob and add a shallot, skinned and very finely sliced.  Leave to stew quietly until the shallot slices are soft but not browned. Then lay the asparagus spears in a single layer on top, drizzle with a little more olive oil and sprinkle a few sea salt flakes over. Transfer to the oven and roast for around 15 minutes. Stir carefully before the serving: the sweetness of the shallots seems to accentuate the asparagus flavour.

After a couple of weeks, I begin to wonder if there isn’t something else I could be doing with the asparagus and start thinking about incorporating them with other ingredients.

Asparagus omelette
A conventional two-egg omelette filled with diced cooked asparagus and a dusting of Parmesan inside and on top to serve is beautifully savoury but I also like a Chinese style omelette. Here a teaspoonful of soy sauce and a slug of mirin, or rice wine is added to the beaten egg, and the omelette is cooked in oil (ideally a relatively tasteless oil,not olive oil) rather than butter. I’ll also add a handful of beansprouts or sugar snap peas to the filling as well as the blanched and diced asparagus spears) to give it a crunchy flavour. Prawns are good too and make it a properly substantial dish.

Asparagus slurry, sorry, stock, made from the stalky bits you would otherwise discard
Rather than throwing away the fibrous ends of the asparagus stems which don’t pass the snap test, you can make a sort of sloppy puree with them which can then be used as an asparagus base for risotto, pasta or soup dishes.

Scrub the discarded stalks well and peel away any obviously fibrous bits. Don’t obsess too much about this or the job will become far too fiddly. Chop the stalks into 1cm long pieces. Put them in a pan, cover – just – with water and bring to the boil. Simmer briskly for around 12-15 minutes: once the green parts start to lose their brightness remove from the heat. Add a pinch of Marigold bouillon and stir in. Pour the whole lot into the liquidiser goblet and whizz up well, or, pass the softened chunks through the coarse disc of a mouli. Whichever one you choose, push the resulting pulp through a sieve. You will end up with a very loose, jade green slurry. It will taste better than it looks or sounds – let’s call it a puree.

Loosened with a couple of spoonfuls of cream – or crème fraiche – and maybe a little water or a mild vegetable bouillon, this makes a great-tasting asparagus soup. It can be served either hot or chilled – if the latter, I’ll add a bit more seasoning. The soup is a beautiful pale green, like eau-de-nil, and a garnish of mint sprigs or a swirl of basil oil (lemon basil, olive oil and a pinch of salt, blitzed quickly together) makes a striking contrast.

The slurry also makes a great base for asparagus risotto, in addition to the hot stock, and gives the risotto a punchy, intense asparagus flavour.

Friday 8 April 2011

The tracks of my tiers - why I love my double-raised beds

Last year I made a smallish bed raised high enough to grow carrots without having to protect against carrot fly – which doesn’t fly above around 2ft 6in, 3ft, or a metre, depending on which source you read. To be on the safe side I made my bed over a metre high. Also, because I felt that an awful lots of good organic matter was being buried deep in the base of this high box and going to waste, I created it as a tiered bed – essentially the high-rise carrot bed was a box set in the middle of a more conventionally sized raised bed. In this tier around the outside of the carrot box, I grew strawberries.

This two-tiered bed was a great success with both excellent strawberries and carrots – and then after the carrots were harvested, I transplanted radicchio and chicory seedlings to mature overwinter. It turned out that there were other advantages I hadn’t foreseen in having a raised bed inside a raised bed, and fired up by this, I made a three-tiered bed to go in a part-sunny, part-shady area in my garden this year.

Why make a tiered bed as opposed to a simple raised bed?
1. Carrots. The original tiered bed was designed to be high enough to grow carrots without them being troubled by carrot fly. Had I simply grown carrots in a 1m high box, a lot of soil would have been wasted filling the bed and it would be difficult to reach the middle of it to plants, weed and harvest.

2. Better access to light. The higher tiers get more sun. In my garden the back of the bed would be a damp and murky place were it not raised up to catch more sun.

3. Crop variety. It’s easier to adjust the soil to suit the crop in each tier. With carrots again, the soil in the top tier where the carrots are grown can have sand added to it which doesn’t affect the soil in the lower tiers which may have bonemeal added for strawberries, or manure for Chinese broccoli.

4. Crop rotation. Following on from variety above, crops can be ‘micro-rotated’ within the tiered bed with ease.

5. Warmth. The raised sides of each tier can reflect warmth on to the growing crops. This can be accentuated by painting the sides white, or even coating with silver foil.

6. Weed-free. Maybe this is down more to ground preparation but I find the tiered bed is to all intents and purposes weed-free, more so even than a conventional raised bed.

7. Aesthetically pleasing. A tiered bed does look smart, even a bit of a talking point. And in my narrow garden, the tiered bed gives the impression of width. I’m sure an artist could explain why.

Now, out of sheer laziness, I find myself beyond the point of no return in building a massive three-tiered bed on the allotment. I measured up a corner of the bed just under the asparagus where the slope makes it shady and prone to poor drainage – both problems which will be nicely alleviated by a raised bed – and then decided I couldn’t be bothered to cut all the gravel boards to fit, so might as well just use 2.4m boards for the base uncut. That base has now gone down and it’s HUGE. This year as well as carrots in the top, I’ll plant out the courgettes in the lower tiers – I can fill these with lot of kitchen compost which the courgettes like.