Get the idea: Asparagus
The return of asparagus is one of those events that mark time not just in the cook’s year but everyone’s, up there with seasonal things like Bluff oysters, strawberries and new season garlic.
I was taught to like asparagus as a kid by my grandmother, who was a farmer near Rotorua. She had her own herd of about 80 Ayrshire cows — all named — producing the best cream, which went perfectly with the strawberries she grew. The other thing she grew was asparagus and holidays on the farm seemed to coincide with asparagus season.
We usually see green asparagus for sale in New Zealand. I write this from Spain, where the markets demonstrate the Spanish love of the big thick spears of white asparagus. We are beginning to see this now in Kiwi greengrocers, but for this article I am talking about the green variety.
When buying asparagus I pay particular attention to the state of the tips. If they look dried-out or slimy I avoid them — as I do any dried-out stems.
My gardener partner put me on to a successful way to store asparagus spears in the fridge. Simply treat them like a bunch of flowers and put them in a deep cylindrical plastic container, cut ends down, tips up, with a few centimetres of water. They seem to last at least a week.
Preparing & cooking
Prepare asparagus for cooking by holding the tip in one hand and the base in the other and bending the spear. It will snap in two. The upper part is for steaming or roasting and the thicker lower part can be peeled and used for soups or pureeing.
I peel any asparagus spears that are very thick but don’t bother with anything else. I am also not picky about the way I boil, steam or roast it. When boiling I just drop it into salted boiling water, bring it back to the boil and simmer a couple of minutes, depending on the thickness of the stems.
Steaming also needs only a few minutes at high heat. To roast, toss the spears in your oil of choice, salt and pepper and place side by side on a baking paper-lined oven tray. Roast for 5-10 minutes at 200C until slightly shrivelled and browned.
Asparagus is a seasonal treat and apart from serving simply with melted butter and being thankful for such deliciousness, here are a few more ways you can appreciate it.
1 For warm asparagus salad, put plenty of steamed asparagus on individual plates, place a soft poached egg on top, sprinkle with diced bacon that has been crisp-fried in extra virgin olive oil, add some capers, a little finely chopped red onion and chopped parsley. Add a big splash of red wine vinegar to the hot bacon pan and let it bubble a few seconds to deglaze, then pour some of this over each plate and serve.
2 Cook some short pasta until al dente. Drain well and place in a warm serving bowl. Add plenty of asparagus that has been sliced into 3cm lengths and steamed, a big splash of seasoned cream which has been brought to the boil with the zest of a lemon and lemon juice to taste. Serve sprinkled with roasted pinenuts and plenty of freshly grated parmesan.
3 Roll out some flaky puff pastry and use it to line a shallow oven proof tray. Brush with a thin layer of dijon mustard. Place plenty of halved asparagus spears in an even layer on top of the mustard. Cover with beaten eggs, a good sprinkling of halved cherry tomatoes, pitted kalamata olives and plenty of grated gruyere cheese. Bake for about 25 minutes at 200C or until well cooked. Serve the tart hot or warm, with salad.
4 Mix some seasoned free range boneless chicken thighs with crushed garlic, fresh lemon thyme leaves and extra virgin olive oil. Place side by side on a baking paper-lined tray and bake at 200C for about 20 minutes or until browned and cooked. When the chicken is almost done, toss lots of asparagus spears in a little extra virgin olive oil, salt and freshly ground black pepper and place side by side on a shallow baking paper-lined oven tray. Place in the oven at 200C and roast for about 10 minutes or until slightly shrivelled and browned. Place on a warm serving platter, slice the chicken thinly across the grain of the meat and pile on top of the asparagus. Serve with aioli and lemon wedges for squeezing. Boiled new potatoes on the side.
5 Borrow from the Ligurians and make or buy plenty of pesto (the real stuff — made with basil) and reserve. Boil short pasta (trofie if you have it but penne or similar will do), halved baby new potatoes and asparagus spears and place in a warm serving bowl, add the pesto and toss well and serve with lots of freshly grated parmesan.
6 Make fresh asparagus rolls with slightly crisp steamed cold asparagus spears, rolled in buttered brown bread lined with paper-thin slices of prosciutto.
7 Steam quinoa and place in a large salad bowl with plenty of roasted sunflower and pumpkin seeds, toasted sesame seeds, chopped roasted almonds and hazelnuts, lots of chopped parsley, lemon zest and steamed asparagus spears. Dress and toss with a red wine vinaigrette and serve sprinkled with plenty of crumbled feta.
8 Slow fry plenty of chopped onions, lemon zest, garlic and fresh thyme sprigs in a little extra virgin olive oil and place in a large bowl with lots of hot boiled peas and asparagus spears. Add diced ham and sour cream, mix gently and serve with crusty bread for lunch or dinner or as a side with roast chicken and steamed rice.
9 Slice lots of button mushrooms thinly and place in a large serving bowl. Add finely chopped red onion, fresh tarragon leaves, chopped roasted hazelnuts and plenty of hot steamed asparagus spears. Dress with lots of lemon juice and a big splash of hazelnut oil and serve with barbecued salmon and new potatoes.
10 Make a quick bechamel or white sauce by bringing some milk, a knob of butter, a fresh bay leaf, a sprig of parsley, some black peppercorns and freshly grated nutmeg to the boil. Thicken lightly with a slurry of cornflour mixed with cold water and strain. Taste and season. Place asparagus spears in a shallow ovenproof dish and pour the sauce over the top so it just covers the asparagus. Sprinkle well with parmesan and bake at 200C for 20 minutes or until bubbling, well browned and the asparagus is just cooked. Remove from the oven and serve sprinkled with gremolata (chopped parsley, garlic and lemon zest). Good for lunch or dinner with barbecued steak and dry-roasted kumara.