Something is in the air. The birds are more vocal, the sun shines through brighter and stronger than a month ago, and there are more happy faces around. For a chef, though, there is a greater reason to be happy than longer days and brighter weather: it's asparagus season.
Without becoming too emotional about it, the quality of fresh British asparagus is a cause for national pride. If all of our gastronomy and ingredients were anywhere near the level of the fresh asparagus, we'd be world leaders - gastrodomination would be ours! Unfortunately, the season lasts for less than two months a year, so it's important to get our fix before we're flooded with inferior spears from elsewhere.
The relatively high price of asparagus is largely due to the cost of growing it. The first two years of nurturing yield no crop whatsoever, and thereafter only a couple of years of harvest prevail. As a result, at any one time a large percentage of an asparagus farmer's land is unproductive.
I'll cover this more fully another week, but when cooked in simmering liquid some vegetables lose vital flavour molecules into that liquid. Asparagus is one of them. A couple years ago, when cooking asparagus in the traditional way (namely, in boiling, salted water), for some reason I tasted the water - the flavour that came through was of asparagus. This may sound obvious, but it's not - after all, the cooking water for green beans, say, does not taste of the beans. Anyway, it was clear that the asparagus had lost some of its flavour to the cooking water. When roasted in olive oil, however, the result tastes markedly more of asparagus.
All recipes serve four.
A wonderfully simple way to bring the best out of asparagus, and a real treat. Allow four to six spears per person minimum.
16-24 asparagus spears
50-75g unsalted butter
1 bunch fresh chervil
Good quality aged balsamic vinegar
50g white closed cap button mushrooms
50g fresh Parmesan (Reggiano)
Salt and pepper
Peel the asparagus, taking care not to take any more flesh off with the skin than you have to, and discard the trimmings. Gently snap the base off each spear, and discard the tough ends. Peel and finely chop the shallots. Finely chop the chervil. Using a vegetable peeler, shave the Parmesan.
In a lidded casserole large enough to hold the asparagus in a single layer, place the butter and the chopped shallot. Place this over a low heat and, with the lid on, gently cook the shallots. After about five minutes, add the asparagus and replace the lid. Continue cooking over the low heat, shaking the pan occasionally for about five minutes, until the asparagus is cooked. Test for doneness by inserting the tip of a knife into a spear - if it goes in easily, with a little resistance, it is ready.
Remove the pan from the heat, add the chopped chervil and season generously with salt and pepper. Replace the lid and leave to stand while preparing the finishing touches. Slice the button mushrooms as finely as possible (use a mandolin, if you have one). Bring the covered casserole to the table, along with the balsamic vinegar, the mushrooms and shaved Parmesan.
Parmesan ice cream
You may think that my recipes are a little too adventurous at times, and that I should stick to tried and tested dishes that have been around for years. Well, here's one that's 185 years old. It comes from Robin Weir's great book Recipes From The Dairy, and is itself an adaptation of a recipe from Joseph Bell's Treatise On Confectionery, published in 1817. It would make an interesting accompaniment to the pot-roast asparagus. These quantities make about 750ml.
500ml whipping cream
110g golden granulated sugar, unrefined
110g grated Parmesan
In a saucepan, slowly bring the cream to the boil with the sugar, stirring gently and constantly as it does so. Once the mixture reaches boiling point, remove from the heat at once, then add the grated Parmesan and continue stirring until the cheese melts. Allow to cool.
Leave overnight in the fridge. The mixture will be firm enough to freeze in the morning. Scrape into a freezer box, give it a good stir, level the mix and cover with greaseproof paper or freezer-film, and freeze for at least six hours.
This is, in fact, a good blueprint for many vegetable soups. The basic principle remains the same: first, make a purée from the vegetable and then use the purée as the base for your soup. The important thing is to seal in the flavour and so bring out the best from the vegetable. This recipe exploits the fact that asparagus loses some flavour to the cooking water, and uses this water in the soup. This recipe is just a simple adaptation of the pot-roast method in the first of this week's recipes. Allow eight to 10 spears per person.
Approximately 3kg asparagus
Cold water (enough just to cover)
75g unsalted butter
5 dssp extra thick double cream
1 lemon, juiced
Salt and pepper
Prepare the asparagus as in this week's first recipe, discarding the peelings and bases. Slice the spears and heads into roughly 1cm-thick pieces and put them into a lidded casserole, along with half of the butter and just enough water to cover.
Over a high heat, bring the water to the boil and cook, covered, until the asparagus is soft but has not lost its colour. Remove from the heat, tip the lot into a liquidiser, and purée thoroughly, then pass through a fine-mesh sieve, pushing it through with the back of a ladle, if necessary.
Return to the pan, add the cream and cook gently for five minutes. You may need to thin the soup with a little water. Season well - it will take quite a lot of salt - whisk in the remaining cold butter and add the lemon juice to taste.