AS WELL as stranding tens of thousands of Brits around the world this week, the volcanic ash crisis had the supermarkets sweating over the possibility of serious fruit and veg shortages. Ironically, the mini-crisis came just as the season gets underway for the one vegetable where we can justifiably claim that home-grown beats all-comers –?the asparagus.
Officially asparagus season runs for around eight weeks from the beginning of May, as warmer temperatures coax the spears out of the ground. However, thanks to modern growing techniques the first English batches have already arrived on the shelves of some supermarkets and restaurants are putting it in menus, while up in Worcestershire’s Vale of Evesham – a traditionally rich area for asparagus growing – the British Asparagus Festival launches tomorrow for a patriotic St George’s Day tie-in.
For once, it’s our murky climate that makes local asparagus best. Whereas the imported versions come from warmer climates where the plant grows much faster, the slow speed of growth in the British climate – the season is kept to eight weeks in order to give plants time to regenerate for the following season – means it has time to take on a much more intense flavour.
That sweet, earthy taste may be a singular one, but one of the beautiful things about asparagus is how versatile it is, whether used as the star ingredient, as an accompaniment for meat or fish or simply within a salad.
After breaking the asparagus off from the woody stalk, use a vegetable peeler to thin down the bottom of the spear. The simplest way to cook it is in boiling water for three or four minutes, which Daniel Sherlock, head chef at City restaurant Prism Brassserie recommends. “Make sure the water is boiling really rapidly and is heavily seasoned, otherwise it can take longer to cook and loose its freshness and colour,” he says. Alternatively, chargrilling asparagus on a griddle pan will add a smoky intensity to the flavour (and the charcoal lines look pretty too). Add a little olive oil, a few parmesan shavings and a squeeze of lemon, and you have the first, freshest taste of spring.
See www.british-asparagus.co.uk for more info.
ASPARAGUS WITH POACHED EGG AND SAUCE MOUSSELINE
Jonas Karlsson of Harvey Nichols Fifth Floor Restaurant, Cafe and Bar
l 2 poached eggs l 10 English asparagus
l 3 egg yolks l 1 tbsp water
l 1 tbsp white wine l 5 white pepper corns
l 2 tbsp white wine vinegar
l 1 parsley stalk l 1/2 shallot
l 150g soft and warm Lescure butter
1. Add water, wine, vinegar, parsley stalk, pepper corns and sliced shallot to a sauce pan then reduce slowly until a glaze
2. Mix reduction and egg yolk in a bowl and whisk over a water bath until thick and creamy
3. Add soft butter slowly, take off heat and adjust seasoning with lemon juice and cayenne pepper
4. Lightly fry the bread in butter to golden
5. Peel and blanch asparagus in boiling salted water for about 1-2 minutes
6. Serve the warm asparagus with crouton, poached eggs, sauce and picked herbs
Grilled asparagus with chilled sorrel cream
Simon Duff, National Dining Rooms
l 1 bunch British asparagus l 1 bunch sorrel
l 100g soured cream (or crème fraiche) l 1 lemon
l 50g shaved hazelnuts, toasted l 100g mixed cress
l 15ml good quality rapeseed oil
1. Cut the woody end of the asparagus stalks off and peel them.
2. Blanch the asparagus 1-2 minutes depending on the size, then season and grill.
3. Chop the sorrel and mix with the soured cream and juice from the lemon, season to taste.
4. Spread the sorrel cream mix on the plate then the grilled asparagus on top, and add the cress mixed with the oil and season. Sprinkle around the toasted hazelnuts.