May 21st, 2012
English asparagus is bang in season right now so Terry Laybourne tells us how to handle this fantastic vegetable.
To others it’s frustrating, but to me, the fact that English asparagus is only available for a few precious weeks each year adds to its attraction. It reminds us that seasons are there for a purpose. You should never find asparagus on a menu outside of its spring growing months. Seasons are there to be respected. Purists argue that asparagus should be eaten within one hour of cutting (a bit extreme; three days is fine). Like garden peas, that sublime sweetness ticks away with every minute.
As a kid, asparagus never entered our house. Even as a young chef, the closest I got to it was Jolly Green Giant tins of strange-looking vegetables. (That being said, tinned asparagus has its uses. It’s not unusual for me to make asparagus soup out of the ‘sprue’–thin, straggly or immature pieces–and bulk it out with a few tins.)
It was only when I got a placement at the Hotel Bellevue in Baden- Baden in Germany that I began to appreciate asparagus. I arrived just before Easter. Within days the whole town had exploded into Spargelzeit, the Festival of Asparagus. It was everywhere, on market stalls, in shopping bags, on every restaurant menu. This was the real deal. I became so caught up in this asparagus whirl that I went out and bought a fancy, expensive asparagus peeler, which I still have to this day.
Peeling asparagus is a perennial debate. It’s a question of size and quality. I peel if I’m serving them in the restaurant, but not when eating at home. If you are troubled by it, try this little test. If a bit of the outer skin comes away easily with your thumbnail, you might want to peel them.
There are two varieties of asparagus (three, if you want to be pedantic, but the third is merely a difference in growing technique): green and white. The growing tips of white asparagus are trenched every day–kept under the soil–to keep them blanched. It is big, bland and common in mainland Europe. The green is what we grow in Britain. To my mind, it’s sweeter, more subtle and has greater depth of flavour–particularly when grown in the north, which I put down to the colder climate necessitating a more leisurely growth.
Fresh asparagus should be firm, glossy, and springy. When pressed gently with your thumbnail, a little moisture, the sap, should rise to the surface. Deciding where to trim is easy: bend it, and where it snaps is the point at which to cut.
Cooking asparagus is dead easy too. Far too much nonsense is talked about using fancy tall pans with perforated inserts. All you need is a large pan with lots of salted water, about 20 grams per litre. Thoroughly wash the asparagus to remove any grains of dirt that might be caught in the tight buds of the tips. Bind equal-sized spears with fine string into bundles, to keep the spears intact and to keep cooking times the same, and plunge them into the boiling water.
Don’t pack the bundles in too tight; they need the luxury of lots of water. Stuffing the pan causes the water temperature to drop dramatically and you will lose vital vitamins and nutrients through the longer cooking time. This, incidentally, is true of all green vegetables. Cover the pan and surface of the water with a clean, damp tea towel to ensure all the bundles stay submerged. After 3 to 4 minutes, squeeze the base end of a spear to test for tenderness.
What about chargrilling, I hear you say. When blackened vegetables were all the rage on fashionable menus in the late ‘90s, I turned up my nose at it. A silly fad, I thought, with no taste benefits. I hold my hands up; I was wrong. Chargrilling is great. Drizzled with olive oil and a generous scattering of sea salt, you get that fantastic contrast between the crunchy bitterness of the caramelized skin and the tender sweetness inside. But be warned; it’s easy to get carried away and overcook them.
Asparagus is good in an omelette, great in quiche and fantastic in risotto. Use the peelings and trimmings for the risotto stock, add the tips right at the end and go steady on the cheese. At home, we often have asparagus with potato gnocchi, browned sage butter and Parmesan.
But the finest way to eat asparagus is to lift them straight out of the pan onto a plate. Squeeze a wedge of lemon over them, sprinkle with sea salt, pick up with your fingers and dip into a pot of melted butter. There’s something almost decadent and definitely sensual about eating asparagus in this way.
To prepare ahead: drain the cooked asparagus, plunge under cold water, dry and lay on a plate covered with a cloth. To re-heat, place them in a single layer in a large, flat saucepan with a scant 3 or 4 tablespoons of water. Add a knob of butter, pinch of salt and pinch of sugar. Boil for 3 minutes or until most of the liquid has evaporated and the asparagus is glossy and coated with a buttery emulsion.
Great with: Butter, chervil, cured ham, crabmeat, eggs, fried breadcrumbs, hollandaise sauce, lemon, mushrooms (any sort but particularly morels), olive oil (extra virgin), Parmesan cheese, sea salt