There are two reasons why everyone gets so over-excited about asparagus.
First, it’s got a very brief season and, short of growing it in greenhouses in Peru (though this is, bizarrely, an almost plausible option now), there is no way of forcing, advancing or extending that season. So it’s rare.
The second reason is that it’s a total sod to grow. Nothing commands respect like the ability to grow asparagus. It stays in the ground all year, taking up lots of valuable growing space. It’s very fussy about the ground it will stay in. It needs lots of empty space between each plant which you must keep utterly weed free lest the diva asparagus plant feels out-competed. The weeds must be hand-weeded not hoed because the asparagus roots are very close to the surface and hoeing risks chopping them up. Oh, and it must only be hand-picked. Daily. All this makes it tricky for commercial growers to think of it as a feasible, profitable crop. It’s like it’s trying to be as commercially un-viable as it possibly can. (But that’s part of its charm I think.) The sod-factor, the space required and the high-labour costs also go some way to explaining the sometimes astronomical prices for asparagus.
So, when it does arrive we all get a bit excited. Here are some quick ways to get your asparagus fix:
- Steam for 2 minutes then dip in a boiled egg
- Add to a risotto in the last 5 minutes of cooking for a bright green supper
- Chop into small rounds and, raw, mix with peas, mange tout and cooked, flaked salmon for a quick salad
Or, you could make asparagus tart with raw asparagus salad as I did today…
Asparagus tart with raw asparagus salad
It's quite purist this one. No herbs for additional flavour or fuss. Just the delicious asparagus in all its glory. There's a certain amount of faff too, but it's worth it for a delicate and dainty dish.
For the pastry:
- 250g plain flour
- 150g butter
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 egg
- 1 tbsp milk
For the filling:
- 1 egg
- 1 egg yolk
- 150ml double cream
- Pinch salt
- 1 tbsp parmesan, grated
- 12 asparagus spears
For the salad:
- 12 asparagus spears
- a little lemon juice
- For the pastry, put all the ingredients in a food processor and whizz until just combined. Tip onto a work surface and bring together into a fat sausage shape. Handle as little as possible to avoid over-working the pastry (which makes it tough). Wrap in cling film and chill for 1 hour.
- Pre-heat the oven to 185C.
- Once chilled, slice into 12 rounds and roll each one out to line 12 small tart cases. (You can use one standard quiche tin with a loose bottom if you prefer.) The pastry should be around 3-4mm thick. Chill the cases for 30 minutes. Blind bake for 15 minutes then remove the beans and lining and cook, uncovered, for another 5 minutes until the pastry is lightly golden and sandy to touch. Allow to cool for a few minutes while you make the filling.
- Whisk together the eggs, cream, salt and parmesan then pour into the cooled cases almost to the top. Cut the top 7cm from the top of your asparagus (or to whatever length will fit in your cases) and lay a spear on top of each tart. Return to the oven for 15 minutes or until set and golden.
- For the salad, remove the woody stem from the asparagus spears and use a peeler to make them into thin ribbons. You can use the leftover stems from the filling too. Cut the ribbons into long matchsticks then toss in lemon juice and a little salt.
- Serve your dainty tarts with a little knot of salad and a glass of very cold white wine.