A is for Asparagus
“Marriage? It’s like asparagus eaten with vinaigrette or hollandaise, a matter of taste but of no importance” – Francoise Sagan
So first up in the 7 a day series is asparagus. Not because it is alphabetically expedient but because it’s brilliant and because it has an extremely short season and will be gone again by the end of June. Asparagus basically screams Spring. Arriving after the UK “hungry gap” of March/April where there is nothing very exciting to eat vegetable wise at all, it is something that food people get very excited about and, curiously for a vegetable, has something of a ‘luxe’ association. Yes, yes, I know it would have been helpful to write this three weeks ago when the season started but my laziness has at least given me lots of time for asparagus eating to share with you, and its price has dropped now too (after the initial excitement of its arrival) so now is the perfect time to go forth and eat it non-stop until it has gone.
What? British asparagus is predominantly of the green variety, or occasionally purple (which still turns green when you cook it so if the colour is your thing use it raw in salads). You can occasionally get that white stuff that the French and Germans go crazy for but I do not really share their really quite extreme passion for it – bit flavourless if you ask me. I am all for the chlorophyll.
Buying: Do buy the British stuff if you can (or wherever is local to you, obviously). Asparagus, like peas and sweetcorn, deteriorates as soon as it is cut. Quite literally by the hour and turns its own sugar into starch. So, leaving aside the ethical and environmental implications and the massive carbon footprint of eating Peruvian asparagus in November (and as someone sitting here wearing clothes made in China I feel one cannot pontificate too greatly on consumer air miles…), the stuff that has had to fly to get here really won’t taste as good. There is also a school of thought that the taste develops better in a cold climate anyway. I noticed the other day that Waitrose still has a lot of Spanish and Italian asparagus stocked in among the British stuff so keep your eyes peeled. Farmer’s markets are loaded with the stuff this time of year too so grab some there if you have one near you.
If you live anywhere near a farm that will let you pick your own, yours is the ultimate asparagus win. Otherwise, look out for brightly coloured spears with tightly closed spears – if the bits at the top (technical term) are beginning to open it means they have been picked too late and are starting to bolt. These will probably taste rather bitter, which is not what anybody wants. Check the ends aren’t too dry/woody and that the spear isn’t pliable (Giorgio Locatelli suggests having a surreptitious snap of a spear at the market or in store to check that it’s still crisp. If you don’t have buckets of Italian charisma going for you, you may not get away with that without being tutted at/arrested/asked to pay for it). Have a good sniff – it should smell of asparagus, if that makes sense?
Storage: Eat it asap. Remember what I just said about the hourly deterioration? If you can’t though, or like me get seduced by the Buy 3 for Probably Only a Tiny Saving But It Sounded Good offers, store it in the fridge for a day or two (tops) like you would cut flowers – in a jar with some water in and a plastic bag loosely over the top. Like this:
The Health Bit: It’s a vegetable. A green one. It is good for you. (For those that are interested – betacarotene, B vitamins, soluble fibre, potassium, rutin. Traditional Chinese medicine believes it to be very good for respiratory disorders).
According to the NHS, roughly 5 spears makes up one “serving” for your 5/7 or 10 a day quota. (Or you could just weigh 80g worth if you really care).
Eating: The thinner ‘sprue’ type is usually cut up and sautéed as it isn’t as tender as the larger spears (it’s good in omelettes/frittatas in particular) while the bigger, juicier (more common) spears lend themselves to lots of different cooking methods. Snap off the woody tip (if you hold it in two hands it should snap at about the right place if you bend it) and you are good to go. Alice Waters, in the scholarly Chez Panisse Vegetables suggests that any spears with a diameter greater than your little finger should be peeled. I don’t always bother if they are pretty fresh, but it is good advice as larger spears will give you that slightly stringy outer layer than will mean that the spear will bend rather than snap when you bite into it.
Boiling and steaming asparagus is very common. Steaming is better than boiling in terms of maintaining the nutrients. Some people faff around with those special pans that hold the asparagus upright with the tips above the water line. Lovely if you have one but I really don’t think it makes a terribly big difference – just boil them in lots of salted boiling water until they are bright green – checking after a couple of minutes to see if they are just tender. They shouldn’t take more than 5 minutes. Steaming takes 2-3 minutes longer. It is very good chargrilled/barbecued as the sugars caramelise but roasting (uncovered) with a little oil gives a good charred almost smoky finish too. Roasting in foil (15-20 minutes at 180C) is a good alternative to boiling. If you want to sauté it – cut into 1/4 inch pieces and go for your life.
Less is definitely more with asparagus. Think a couple of extra ingredients max. The indispensable Flavour Thesaurus categorises asparagus in the very appetising sounding “Sulphurous” category. You can’t really argue with that. It pairs very well with the other sulphurous contenders – eggs, garlic, shellfish (prawn and crab especially). Hugh Fernley-Whittingstall does a very nifty thing where he adds a little butter and vinegar to a soft boiled egg, creating a sort of cheat’s hollandaise to dip your asparagus into. Recipe here.
No surprises also that the Flavour Thesaurus notes asparagus’ affinity with salty dairy products, which contrast and enhance its flavours – look no further than the classic pairings of butter, parmesan, goat’s cheese and hollandaise. Maltaise sauce (essentially hollandaise with orange) is particularly good, if not necessarily a ‘healthy’ choice.
Bacon and pancetta are, as with most things, fantastic with asparagus. Lemon really brings out the flavour, it oddly works well with potatoes and it makes an excellent risotto. The River Café asparagus and herb risotto is really worth a try for a weekend lunch or dinner.
My Current Favourites:
1. Scrambled Eggs with Asparagus
We’ve eaten this a lot over the last few weeks. It is a perfect dinner accompanied with toasted wholewheat or sourdough. We’ve done it the French way (with butter) and the Spanish way (with olive oil) and added herbs (basil, mint, whatever) or some goat’s cheese. I prefer the goat’s cheese with olive oil cooked eggs – I think it all gets a bit too dairy otherwise. The herbs are very good with the butter eggs though. If you are using regular size asparagus, blanch it first for 1-2 mins then sauté it for a minute or two in whatever fat you are cooking with before adding the lightly beaten well seasoned eggs and cook until the eggs are just set. Sprue (fine) asparagus can just go straight into the pan to sauté before adding the eggs. It really is as simple as that.
2. Asparagus & Spinach ‘pesto’
This is taken from Heidi Swanson’s Super Natural Cooking. It is very versatile and keeps well for up to a week if you stick it in a sealed jar with a layer of oil on top in the fridge. We ate on pasta, tricked the child into thinking it was regular pesto for his pasta, stuck it on pizzas but it also makes a good topping for sweet potatoes and toasted sandwiches.
You can find the original recipe here. It is, though, something that I think you have to use your instincts on – particularly around your garlic, olive oil and parmesan as they vary so much in taste and strength. I would go for a fruity rather than grassy olive oil if you have one as it all gets a bit too lawn like with the asparagus otherwise, but if you have a classic Italian grassy extra virgin oil just add a bit less and make it the balance with regular olive oil. I would recommend blitzing up the asparagus and spinach with one garlic clove and two thirds of the parmesan, taste and then build up from there.
If you are making this to eat with pasta, how strong you make it also depends slightly on what type of pasta you are going to eat with it. I think it is best with a more delicate white pasta as the asparagus and spinach flavour isn’t that pronounced and it risks getting lost a bit with wholewheat (the first time I tried it with wholewheat pasta I ended up adding a slice of parma ham and a handful of rocket and lots of extra seasoning to lift it up a bit). Kale or watercress pesto is probably a better choice all round for wholewheat pasta, but if you do fancy making this specifically for wholewheat pasta (it’s still good, don’t get me wrong), just make sure that the puree is quite punchy – almost too punchy – when you make it up so that I can stand up to the wholewheat (and remember that the flavour does soften a bit when added to the hot pasta).
3. Grilled Asparagus with Oranges and Tapenade Toast
This is from Chez Panisse Vegetables and is really simple (particularly if you find a good store-bought tapenade) but results in an amazing flavour combination. If I didn’t have a spouse who is deeply averse to olives I would eat this all the time during asparagus season. The original uses blood orange but here in the UK at least those seasons don’t often overlap so I used regular oranges.
To make enough for 4 (as a light lunch or dinner): peel 3 oranges (zest one of them before peeling), remove the pith – this is tedious but important – and cut into thin slices. Make up a vinaigrette (take 1 shallot, finely chop it and leave to macerate in juice of 1/2 orange, 1/2 tsp red wine vinegar and 1.5tsp balsamic vinegar for 30 minutes. Whisk in extra virgin olive oil to taste, add seasoning and the finely chopped zest). Blanch asparagus for a minute and cool to room temperate. Brush with oil and salt, grill or griddle for 5-6 minutes until brown all over. Serve asparagus with the orange slices on top and pour dressing over. Serve with a big slice of grilled sourdough or country-style bread smothered in black olive tapenade. (For some reason I don’t have a photo of this. I will update post with it next time I eat it).
4. Asparagus and Goat’s Cheese Pizza
Make pizza dough (or use a pre-bought base). Throw on some grated mozzarella. Add some asparagus (cut in half lengthways if thick), dot on some goat’s cheese (I used Monte Ebrero). Cook. Eat.
(I prefer this without tomato sauce, as shown in the pictures. My husband made his with tomato sauce – canned tomatoes, drained, blended with a bit of garlic, chilli and seasoning – and mozzarella and said it was very good. He probably added parma ham too, I don’t remember but it’s a fair assumption).