Learning to make the most of asparagus

ASPARAGUS is one of the glories of the British spring. Its yearly sprout excites chefs the country over. The problem with asparagus, though, is that it’s not exactly sexy for the rest of us. You don’t race to the supermarket with a craving for it – nor do you discuss its sensual merits with foodie friends. Its chief association (among the ignorant, of course) is that it makes your wee smell funny.

Its reputation has also been dented by years of ill-usage in the days before the UK became a foodie paradise – it was generally overcooked and badly used on menus.

But this is 2011 and local and seasonal is king. So when it turned out that Waitrose was offering asparagus cookery lessons in its shiny new cookery school (at the Finchley Road shop), I signed up.

With our glass of cava (nicely topped up throughout) in hand, we began with a demonstration that not only showed us how to manipulate the asparagus, but how to chop shallots, grasp knives, and create “en papillote” parcels.

Our first dish was asparagus roasted en papillote (neatly folded in a wax paper and foil envelope), with chilli, lemon and lots of butter. Eaten out of the envelope, it had a rough ‘n’ ready, bbq-friendly appeal. It was definitely sexy. And who knew that asparagus could stand up to chilli so well? Next was asparagus with hollandaise sauce – which was less about the vegetable and more about learning to make a delicious hollandaise, a matter of finely chopped shallots, white wine, vinegar, eggs and more butter than you will ever care to consciously ingest. It also involves whisking to make your arm fall off. Once finished, the combination was one of the most delicious I’ve ever had.

Evidently, English asparagus is not only delicious, but versatile, a fact that was proved even more unequivocally with the soup that came next. So simple: shallots, chopped potato, chopped asparagus and chicken stock fried up together, then blended. It would be a dinner party dream – and a dieter’s one too.

Asparagus season runs till the end of June.

For recipe ideas, see www.waitrose.com / www.british-asparagus.co.uk.

For more info about Waitrose Cookery School, from £105, go to www.waitrose.com/home/inspiration/waitrose_cookery_school.