Savour the flavour as good cooking releases sweetness of asparagus stems
I am going to let myself down this month. I have tried hard over the past few months to keep things a little different, to steer clear of the mainstream and work hard to inspire you to look at things from a different point of view, but there is just no avoiding it now.
I simply have to go with the flow and talk about asparagus. Specifically, English asparagus. I think it must be all this cold weather we have been having, making me yearn for these green spears of joy – they seem to herald the coming of summer to the kitchen like no other veg.
Now, reams and reams have been written in homage to this wonderful seasonal treat over the years and so I shall endeavour to avoid banging on about the "wondrous flavour and vigorous attitude" of this delicious fern. You all know, for example, that to eat asparagus imported at great cost to the environment is not only a terrible crime against the planet, but a waste of money too, as it almost certainly will fail to satisfy. You are probably fed up with hearing about how it is an aphrodisiac and why it makes your wee smell funny. You are probably not that interested in the various festivals held in its honour across Europe, or that wild asparagus is among the best you will ever eat, and you are definitely fed up about hearing how short the season is. Frankly, as you can now buy English asparagus from mid-March until round about the middle of June, it no longer has a particularly short season.
I think this is one of those occasions when it is best to put the evangelical zeal to one side, and simply offer you a few tips on different ways to cook and enjoy your asparagus. As the season goes on, it is a cheap and readily-available treat that should inspire you to get creative in the kitchen, and so, I shall begin – or rather finish – with a little hard-earned advice I have learned for myself over the years.
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Firstly, like any other veg, you want fresh, tender, young specimens for delicate or even no cookery; and as the season goes on – or the longer your latest purchase languishes in the fridge – the more cookery and imagination it will require.
For early season young and tender spears, a light blanching is the most they will need. They are delicious raw, just dipped in a little lemony aioli; but a quick blanch in well-salted, boiling water should be enough for the old butter, salt and pepper treatment to do the spears justice. Or you could, of course, head down the hollandaise route, should you be feeling brave enough (go on, it's easy!)
As the season goes on, or for larger, thicker stems, you will need to be bolder with the boiling. Here I will depart from imparted wisdom and tell you what I think, for what that's worth, rather than what most people would have you believe. Right: here goes. I think most chefs undercook their asparagus these days. I know that is a dangerous thing to say, since, as outlined above, raw asparagus can be delicious, but I do feel that larger stems should be cooked – and cooked well – to release their sweetness and make them more tender. All the asparagus I have ever eaten in Germany is fat-stemmed and well-cooked and it is among the best I have ever had. I am not suggesting that you should boil it to death, but just try a little test. In a pan of boiling, salted water, place your bunch of asparagus (don't bother to tie it together; I've never really understood that particular piece of cookery law). Once it has had a few minutes and is bright green and slightly tender, turn off the heat and take out half the asparagus, then after another two or three minutes, remove the rest. Taste each and decide for yourself. I think that most of you will enjoy the extra sweetness and depth of flavour of the slightly longer-cooked spears.
Once the season is in full swing, throw out the rulebook altogether, break your stems with gay abandon wherever they snap the easiest, dress them in oil, salt and pepper and chuck them on the BBQ. Then pour over some grated garlic and finely-chopped chilli oil and a squeeze of lemon: this is simply the best way to serve asparagus in full season and a little crumbled fetta will only enhance the joy. But that is not the end of the fun. Make yourself a few tarts, or a creamy pasta sauce and definitely a soup from all the trimmings, served up with a drop of garlic yoghurt and some fresh bread. There are few finer things. If the weather is hot then a chilled asparagus soup is a treat not to be missed.
I suspect that next month I will back to my usual self. Until then, enjoy the asparagus.
Find out more at Tim's website, www.greensauce.co.uk.