Asparagus generates a level of excitement unparalleled by any other vegetable. Its short season is celebrated with festivals and special menus across Europe. In Germany, it is such an obsession that it’s difficult to find a menu without an asparagus special from April to June.
The asparagus celebrated in mainland Europe is generally white asparagus. The emerging asparagus shoots are ‘earthed up’, that is, covered with soil to cut out the light. This stops the shoots photosynthesizing and turning green, so the shoots are tender and less bitter. However, in the UK, we have a huge appetite for green asparagus, which has a stronger flavour. Traditionally, asparagus could be harvested for about six weeks from mid-April. This is still the time when you’ll find asparagus with the best flavour, when it hasn’t been deteriorating in air freight from Peru for who knows how long. Now is the true asparagus season, and it is definitely worth celebrating.
Asparagus (or sparrow grass, as it used to be known) is a hugely adaptable vegetable. It will sit happily in anything from an Asian stir fry to a French hollandaise. When it is at the height of its natural season, and you can buy it beautifully fresh at the side of the field where it was picked, it really should be the star of the show. It is great from breakfast through to supper. With that in mind, we’ve put together a full day of asparagus dishes to choose from:
Breakfast: Chargrilled asparagus with hollandaise sauce and smoked salmon scrambled eggs
Asparagus and hollandaise were made for each other. This indulgent breakfast is perfect for a special occasion.
You wil need:
- 4 egg yolks and 4 whole eggs
- 250g diced cold unsalted butter
- 1 lemon
- 10 asparagus spears
- Olive oil
- 30g butter
- 2 tbsp milk
- 4 slices smoked salmon
Put 4 egg yolks, 250g diced cold unsalted butter and 2 tablespoons of water in a thick bottomed pan. Cook gently, stirring constantly, until the sauce thickens then stir in a little lemon juice to taste. A flask is perfect for keeping hollandaise warm until you’re ready to serve.
Trim any tough woody ends from your asparagus then toss with oil, salt and pepper. Char on a ridged griddle pan for five minutes or so, turning occasionally, until tender.
Melt a knob of butter in a separate pan. Pour in 4 eggs which have been beaten with a pinch of salt and pepper and a small dash of milk. Leave for a minute or so then briefly stir again. Repeat until you have soft folds of scrambled egg then gently fold in your smoked salmon.
Lunch: Asparagus and Ricotta Tart
You will need:
- 250g shortcrust pastry
- 200g ricotta
- 200ml crème fraiche
- 2 eggs
- 400g asparagus
- 100g cheddar cheese
- 30g flaked almonds
Pre-heat the oven to 180C/Gas 4. Line a 23cm tart tin with shortcrust pastry, cover with greaseproof paper, fill with baking beans and bake for 20 minutes.
Mix 200g ricotta with 200ml crème fraiche, 2 eggs and plenty of salt and pepper. Arrange a good handful of asparagus spears in the tart case and put it back on the oven tray. Pour the ricotta mixture over the asparagus and sprinkle over a good handful of grated cheddar and flaked almonds. Bake for 25-30 minutes until just set.
Dinner: Asparagus risotto with pancetta
You will need:
- 60g butter
- 1 onion
- 1 celery stick
- 500g asparagus
- 500ml vegetable stock
- 2 garlic cloves
- 300g risotto rice
- 1 glass white wine
- 6 rashers pancetta
- 50g parmesan cheese
- Rocket, to serve
Melt a thick slice of butter and fry 1 finely chopped medium onion and 1 finely chopped celery stick.
In a separate pan, simmer a handful of trimmed asparagus spears cut into 1cm lengths in vegetable stock until just tender, and reserve the cooking liquid.
Once the onion and celery soften, add 2 finely chopped cloves of garlic. After a minute or so, add 300g risotto rice and stir well so the grains are coated in the butter. Season well with sea salt and black pepper. Turn up the heat and add a glass of white wine, stirring continuously until the liquid has almost entirely evaporated. Turn the heat down to low and add ladles of asparagus stock into the rice, stirring constantly until each ladleful has been absorbed before adding the next. A couple of minutes before you think the risotto is cooked, add the cooked asparagus spears.
In the meantime, fry rashers of pancetta in a separate pan until thoroughly crisp then drain on kitchen paper.
Once the rice is cooked and has no chalky bite left in it, ensure the risotto is a little more liquid than you want it to be, add a good handful of grated parmesan cheese and another knob of butter. Cover the pan and leave for a couple of minutes to thicken and absorb. Serve with the pancetta and lots of rocket salad.