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.

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