Produce report: September 18
We’re cooking asparagus for breakfast, lunch and dinner (see recipes below) because you have to celebrate one of spring’s most-awaited crops while you can. Those first pricey bunches are appearing in supermarkets now, with increased volumes (and cheaper buys) as the season gets fully under way in October and November. It’s pretty well all over by January.
Labour-intensive to grow, asparagus are the young shoots of a cultivated lily. In New Zealand we have traditionally eaten the green variety but, increasingly, the sweeter purple type, which is great raw, is available too. There is little white asparagus here. Grown out of the sun, the white is in demand in Europe.
Generally, we like our spears thin rather than fat. Those lean types are more tender and delicately flavoured than the thickened ones which, because they are in the ground for longer, have a stronger taste. Whatever size you opt for, try not to buy bunches that are a mix of the two, which will complicate the cooking time. Look for asparagus that is squeaky when rubbed (it will be fresher) and avoid spears that are rubbery, have brown or dry ends and white woody stalks.
Asparagus is a nutritional powerhouse, with high levels of vitamins A and C, potassium, iron and calcium. It’s also a diuretic; giving urine that much-discussed aroma (but which not everyone can smell).
To remove the woody ends at cooking time simply hold the spear and bend it to snap, leaving a tender stalk but a lot of waste (fine if you use them to make stock or soup). Or trim the bottom of each spear and peel the base. Asparagus can also be frozen. Remove the tough ends, blanch quickly, transfer to an ice bath, drain and dry. Stored in the freezer in a sealed container or a ziplock bag and added frozen to soups. It will keep for about a year.
Remarkably, at one time, most Kiwis opened a can to eat their asparagus — those super soft spears often wrapped in slices of buttered white bread. Though many of us still have a place in our hearts for such teatime nostalgia, it’s worth trying Warren Elwin’s updated, quick-pickled asparagus roll: Mix 2 cups of white wine vinegar,½ cup water, 1 Tbsp pickling spice, 3 Tbsp brown sugar and ½ tsp salt in a pot and stir over a medium heat until hot. Pour this liquid over a couple of bunches of trimmed asparagus and leave to pickle overnight, or until cool. Cut the crusts off a loaf of sliced fresh white sandwich bread, butter one side and roll around asparagus spears.
Asparagus loves melted butter and olive oil and was made for hollandaise sauce (see recipes on bite.co.nz). Because it also loves egg, polonaise topping (fresh breadcrumbs toasted in butter with finely chopped hard-boiled eggs and parsley) is a classic accompaniment over cooked spears.
To cook asparagus: blanch tied bundles (so you won’t have to chase loose spears around the pot) for a few minutes, then plunge into icy water or serve them warm. Steam over water for a few minutes, or coat them with olive oil and salt and pepper and barbecue. Try asparagus roasted, brushed with oil and seasoned and cooked high up in a hot oven on a tray for about 15-20 minutes, more or less, depending upon how cooked you like it. Asparagus is also wonderful stir-fried and shaved raw into salads.
Asparagus can easily dry out. Store it in the fridge with the bunch sitting upright in a little water — change it when the liquid turns cloudy. Or wrap the ends of the bunch in damp paper towels and replace them when dry. Asparagus can also be stored in a plastic bag in the fridge but this method is not quite so good. Stored well, it will stay fresh for about a week, although the flavour is best if it is eaten after one to two days.
Cauliflower and broccoli are our vegetable buys of the week. Avocados are affordable, lettuces and watercress look good. Fruit wise, it’s still lemons, navel oranges, Packham pears and kiwifruit. Pick up a couple of cheap South American mangoes and treat yourself to an imported pomegranate to sprinkle over a spring salad.
For those evenings when you feel like a bit of sweetness but haven’t prepared a dessert, these pan-fried pears are perfect. The praline can be made well in advance and stored in an airtight container. Serve with a dollop of creme fraiche.
- In a small pot place ½ cup sugar and ½ cup water. Simmer until golden brown. This will take about 10 minutes. Resist stirring. Place a piece of baking paper on a tin tray and sprinkle 100g roughly chopped hazelnuts. When caramel is ready pour it over the nuts and leave to cool. Either place in a food processor and blitz until chunky or cover with another piece of paper and hit gently with a rolling pin to crush.
- Place 15g butter in a frying pan and bring to a sizzle. Add 2 cored pears, cut into chunks, and toss until lightly brown and starting to soften. Add 2 Tbsp brown sugar and zest and juice of ½ lemon. Continue to cook for 3 or 4 minutes. Serve warm or cold with a dollop of creme fraiche and a sprinkling of praline. Serves 4.
Asparagus on the menu
Breakfast: Chargrilled asparagus and mushrooms on toast