In Praise of Asparagus
The earliest asparagus to appear is the sprue, fine stems that have been thinned out to encourage the plant to grow thicker. It has all the taste of the bigger stems but is sold more cheaply. You won’t find it in the supermarkets, though. It’s considered almost a by-product of the main crop and not worth bagging up. Farmers tend to sell it loose to local markets and greengrocers. Because the sprue is younger and finer, the stems remain tender all the way down and are ideal for simple cooking. Try them just steamed for a few minutes and dressed with a little butter, or garnished with a poached egg and plenty black pepper.
|Just waiting for a little vinaigrette
Don’t let respect mean fear, though. Asparagus is the easiest thing in the world to cook. Just break off the bottom end of the stem, where they may be a bit woody, and boil them briefly in salted water. Because the tip is very tender, it’s best to err on the side of slightly undercooking them, but a soft tip won’t kill you if you overestimate how long they take. Really dedicated foodies sometimes buy asparagus pans – tall, narrow pans that allow you to stand the stems upright, so that the tips gently steam while the lower stem boils. I’ve been a dedicated and enthusiastic foodie for 30 years and never felt the need for one. Even a small one will set you back £50, which I’d rather spend on great ingredients and a decent bottle of wine or two.
Asparagus lends itself very well to serving with seafood. The fine flavour marries perfectly with poached salmon, crab, lobster and trout. Any of these could be served hot or cold with the dressings mentioned earlier. If you’re feeling very extravagant, I might mention that asparagus works well with truffle, too. I wouldn’t advocate buying truffle oil specially, but if you happen to have some in, why not give it a try?
Every few years, I make the effort to make asparagus soup. It’s a good dish for a nice dinner with friends and can use up the older stalks at the end of the season, when the price drops again. Everything about the soup is simple and easy to prepare, but it must be passed through a sieve, and that can be tedious. French cooks will have a mouli-légumes for this job, a hand mill that presses the cooked veg through a mesh as you turn the handle. I haven’t; I puree the veg in a blender then press it through a sieve with the back of a wooden spoon and a lot of swearing. It takes a year to forget how much work that involves, but I have to admit that the taste is worth it. Asparagus soup can be served hot or cold. The recipe I use is adapted from the French website CuisineAZ (https://www.cuisineaz.com/recettes/veloute-froid-d-asperges-vertes-8479.aspx )
Asparagus soup (serves 4-6)
1 small onion or a couple of shallots, finely chopped
2pt chicken or vegetable stock, enough to cover the veg in the pan
Crème fraiche or sour cream to garnish
• First prepare the asparagus. Snap off the bottom of each stem and discard. Snap off the tips, blanch them for about 30 seconds in boiling, salted water, then refresh them in cold water, drain and reserve. Chop the rest of the stems into 2cm pieces.
• Sweat the onion or shallots in a little butter until they’re translucent but not yet colouring.
• Add the asparagus stems to the pan and cover with the stock. You can use water for a lighter, more asparagussy flavour, but I like to use stock. Add the bouquet garni. Bring the pan JUST to the boil and simmer until the stems are tender (about 10-15 mins).
• Allow the soup to cool and remove the bouquet garni.
• Blitz thoroughly in a blender, to get as smooth a purée as you can, then press through a sieve, discarding any fibres left behind. You will at this point want to curse and swear and ask yourself whose stupid idea it was to make this soup. Your guests will thank you for it, though, I promise you.
• Give the passed soup a stir and season to taste with salt and plenty black pepper. Remember that chilling will dull the flavour a little, so you need to add a touch more if that’s what you’re going to do.
• Chill the soup in the fridge until you’re ready to serve.
• Reheat the soup first or serve straight into bowls. Garnish each bowl with a tablespoon of crème fraiche or sour cream and a couple of asparagus tips.
A note about wine
The distinctive taste of asparagus can make many wines taste a little “off.” However, it makes a perfect match for wines made with sauvignon blanc grapes. These are incredibly popular at the moment and not at all difficult to find. French wines like Sancerre or Pouilly-Fumé have a less pronounced, more minerally flavour than the modern style of New Zealand wines. Drink whichever suits your own palate: they're both very complimentary with asparagus. English Bacchus wine is also a good match, being another aromatic grape variety. If you're not sure which grapes are in your wine, look for words like "herbal," "gooseberry" or "nettles" in the description.
|Spanish style, with almond butter & Manchego cheese