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asparagus

Lunches & Light Suppers/ Spring/ Summer/ Suppers, Dinners & Main Courses

ASPARAGUS AGAIN

Frittata di asparagi

I have friends who remark upon the passing of the years by exclaiming how quickly Christmas comes around. Not me, as apart from the fact that I truly loathe turkey, there are more pleasurable milestones throughout the year. For me, the best is the arrival of English asparagus. There is nothing quite like the real English product and I confine my asparagus eating to the eight or so weeks of the year when it hits the markets. Yes, when I am in Italy, I love Italian asparagus and it has a subtly different flavour so the risotto, or whatever I’m making, are also subtly different, but again, I only use it in season. And no, I never use Peruvian or Mexican asparagus that seems to be available all year round. Why would I do that? Why would anyone do that – it just doesn’t have the same depth of flavour.

I do remember years ago (in the 1970s or early 80s I think), I tried a recipe for a quiche that used canned asparagus and evaporated milk. It was foul, what was I thinking; even the dog wouldn’t eat it and Labradors don’t turn up their noses at much. I recently was given a can of asparagus, prior to the season starting, because this well meaning person knew how much of “an asparagus nut” I was. Well, quite. A nut but not idiotic. And yes, it is still foul stuff, still a travesty of the fresh product but OK for my neighbour’s compost heap.

I’ve written elsewhere on this site about how to make real asparagus quiche, soup and risotto so this short post is about how to put together an authentic Italian frittata using asparagus. If you can make an omelette, forget what you know about omelettes. You do see writers who say that a frittata is an Italian omelette and it makes me livid. OK, they are both eggs but the methods are different, not to mention that an omelette is folded or rolled and a frittata is flat. An omelette is made rapidly, keeping the eggs moving and is over in the blink of an eye. I love Margaret Costa’s description in her Four Seasons Cookery Book of being tutored in the art of omelette making by Monsieur Laplanche, then chef des cuisines at the London Savoy; he had been taught as a commis to cook on the back ring of a gas cooker with the naked flame in front of the pan, under his wrist. Don’t try this at home, but it gives you an idea of how rapidly the eggs should be cooked for a French omelette.

So having said all that, for this recipe, forget it all (although I implore you to find a copy of Mrs Costa’s book – it is captivating) as a frittata is approached differently. It is slow cooked and to finish it, you can either flip it like a pancake or whip it under the grill for a brief moment. Because I use a heavy Le Creuset pan for this, I have proven to myself that my wrists are too feeble to flip a frittata so despite what my Italian friends do, I use the grill method, but you do have to watch it like a hawk. I am a massive fail as well when it comes to the “slide in onto a plate and flip it over” method which if you want to attempt, that is what You Tube is for. If it ends up on the floor, don’t blame me.

FRITTATE DI ASPARAGI

Print Recipe
Serves: 2 Cooking Time: 20 minutes

Ingredients

  • 200g fresh English asparagus (a bit more or less won’t matter too much)
  • 4 large eggs
  • 50g grated Parmesan cheese (no, supermarket “cheddar” won’t do)
  • 30g unsalted butter
  • salt and freshly milled black pepper
  • A heavy based frying pan: I use a Le Creuset with a top diameter of 20 cms

Instructions

1

Heat your grill

2

Trim the asparagus and cut into 1 - 1.5 cm pieces, keeping the tips whole

3

Rinse and blanche in boiling water for 2 minutes

4

Drain thoroughly, patting gently dry with lots of kitchen paper

5

Beat the eggs in a bowl (I use a large Pyrex jug) until whites and yolks are well blended

6

Add the asparagus, cheese, salt and pepper (about 5 twists of the mill)

7

Melt the butter in the frying pan, over a medium heat

8

When the butter foams but is not coloured, add the egg mixture

9

Turn the heat down as low as possible and let the mixture set and thicken

10

This might take up to about ten or twelve minutes but don’t wander off and read the paper; it needs a close eye kept to prevent browning

11

When the top is still runny but the very edges look set, whip it under a hot grill for about 30 seconds, but again watch it like a hawk: it must not brown

12

Loosen the frittata from the pan using a spatula and slide onto a warm plate

13

Cut into wedges and serve warm, not hot, with a green salad

Notes

The frittata in the picture is a bit less puffy than normal as I only had three eggs. Still tasted good, though. We like to sprinkle a bit more Parmesan over the cooked frittata and they also work cold and travel well for picnics or packed lunches. They can also be adapted to use whatever you have around; I like to use up the ends of whole salami or chorizo, finely sliced red pepper, left over griddled courgettes or small cubes of gorgonzola which melt wonderfully into the eggy mixture. Cold and cut into small cubes, frittate are excellent stuzzichini, too

 

Lunches & Light Suppers/ Spring/ Summer/ Suppers, Dinners & Main Courses

ASPARAGUS SOUP

Asparagus soup, blended to velvety smoothness and finished with creme fraiche and pink peppercorns

I love making soup and it is a default when I open the fridge and am faced with left over broccoli or pretty much anything. This soup is so delicious, however, that I encourage you to buy asparagus just for this. You can sometimes find sprue, which is thin, weedy stuff that would get sand kicked in its face on the beach, but is fab for soup making and is cheaper than the muscly stuff you need for cooking naked (the asparagus, not you….but I’m not here to judge). Markets are better hunting grounds for this than supermarkets and keep your eyes peeled, especially towards the end of the season. The quantity is fairly arbitrary, as you can just adjust everything else dependent on how much “grass” you have. I usually make soup in an ancient and much loved Le Creuset 20cm casserole, but as long as whatever you use has a thick base, use what you have. In terms of finishing the soup, my preference is Ivy House Farm (ivyhousefarm.com) Jersey single cream (available from farmdrop.com) and a miniscule amount of finely chopped chive, but this is good with yogurt or creme fraiche and parsley. I have tried this with mint, thinking it was a summer herb and might complement the asparagus well. Horrid: what was I thinking. Only thing I would caution against is swamping the wonderful asparagus flavour by using too much of any of your preferred finishes. Oh and I don’t think this works as a chilled soup either, but try it – you might think differently!

Ingredients

  • 400g fresh asparagus
  • 1 banana shallot, chopped
  • 1 clove garlic, finely chopped
  • unsalted butter
  • olive oil
  • 750 ml hot vegetable stock (Marigold or Kallo is fine)
  • chives or flat leaf parsley
  • cream, yogurt or creme fraiche
  • salt and freshly ground pepper

Instructions

1

Add 1tbsp of oil and 1 tbsp butter to pan and add shallot and garlic, keep heat low to prevent colouring and soften, added a modicum of salt at this point

2

While this is happening, chop the stems into pieces about 1cm long, after snapping off and discarding any woody ends

3

Add to the pan and stir around cooking gently without colouring; add some freshly ground pepper at this point and then add the stock

4

Partially cover and simmer for about 25 minutes; the asparagus needs to be soft and the liquid to have reduced by about 20% in order to concentrate the flavour

5

Turn off the heat and allow to cool slightly

6

Blend to the point that pleases you: sometimes I like a very smooth soup, other times, I like to see a few green chunky bits bobbing around. If I want it to be very refined (not often!), I will sieve it but for me, adding refinement also risks removing some precious asparagus flavour

7

Serve into warmed dishes, stir in your choice of dairy and sprinkle lightly with finely chopped herbs

Notes

Serves four as a starter or two for a substantial lunch with Ballymaloe Bread. This also freezes well if frozen prior to adding the cream and I quite like having some squirrelled away for those cold summer days that we inevitably get in the UK.

 

 

Lunches & Light Suppers/ Spring/ Summer/ Suppers, Dinners & Main Courses

ASPARAGUS TART

I suppose this is based on a quiche but having experimented, I have decided that for me, a shallow tart with a crisp, short pastry gives the elegant proportions for asparagus. With other ingredients, I might use a higher proportion of filling to pastry (ie a deeper tart) but somehow, this works well as a light, summery savoury tart. Oh, and I unapologetically use my Magimix for making pastry, as I don’t have a light hand with pastry, but do what works for you! In terms of the cheeses, I have made this with Cheddar, Cheshire, Emmental and Gruyere in the egg mixture and it’s worked well. Parmesan in the mixture was less successful, as was Roquefort, both of which overpowered the asparagus (although I have other recipes using both of those in the mixture that are yummy). Dusting the top with Parmesan isn’t essential either and you can equally use Padano. We love this served warm, not hot, with a crisp green salad and a chilled white wine. I prefer not to use lemon juice in the salad dressing where I’ve used asparagus; somehow, for me, the flavours of asparagus and lemon fight unpleasantly so I avoid putting them together on the same plate.

ASPARAGUS TART

Print Recipe
Serves: 4

Ingredients

  • PASTRY - 175g plain flour plus extra for dusting
  • 45g unsalted butter, cut into small cubes
  • 40g lard, cut into small cubes
  • FILLING - 350g asparagus
  • 40g grated Gruyere cheese
  • 15g finely grated Parmesan
  • 2 medium eggs
  • 200ml single cream
  • salt and freshly milled black pepper

Instructions

1

PASTRY - Sieve flour into bowl of processor, add cubed fats and process until resembling breadcrumbs

2

Add about three tablespoons of water and process until pastry comes together in a ball

3

Wrap in cling film and rest in the fridge for at least half an hour

4

Then lightly flour work surface, roll out thinly and use to line a 20cm shallow loose bottomed flan tin

5

Put in fridge for another half hour or so, during which pre-heat the oven to 180C/170C fan

6

After the half hour is up, prick the bottom of the pastry base lightly with a fork and line with parchment and baking beans

7

Place on a baking sheet and out in the oven for 10 minutes

8

Then remove the parchment and beans and bake for another 10 minutes

9

Remove and set aside while filling is prepped.

10

FILLING - Starting with the asparagus, snap off the ends at the natural break point and steam for about five minutes

11

Drain really well, mopping with kitchen paper - if you neglect this step, you may end up with watery, soggy tart, which is just horrid!

12

Cut into 1cm pieces and arrange over the pastry base

13

Beat together eggs, cream and the Cheddar or Gruyere and season

14

Pour the mixture carefully over the asparagus and sprinkle with the Parmesan

15

Place carefully on a baking tray and bake for about 30 minutes, until top is golden brown and the centre feels firm

Lunches & Light Suppers/ My Favourites/ Spring/ Summer/ Suppers, Dinners & Main Courses

ASPARAGUS RISOTTO

When the first English asparagus hits the shops in late April, early May, it scarcely seems possible that one can have too much of a good thing. I know that one can now have asparagus all year round, but to me it is one of the last true seasonal foods left. I don’t buy anything but English and make the greedy most of the short season.

It is just so easy to prepare and no, it isn’t necessary to have a special pan for cooking it, although admittedly the stems take longer to cook than the tips. To get round this, I tend to steam rather than simmer, as I can prop up the tips on the side of the steamer and then poke them back down for the last two minutes.

If I roast them, there isn’t really any way round having crunchier tips than stems but as they still retain intense asparagus flavour, I tend to just accept that’s how things are. For such a wonderful food, small compromises are worth it, I find.

Asparagus has an interesting history and appears as an offering to the gods on friezes from circa 3000BC. The Romans loved it so much that their followers of the Greek Epicurus developed ways to dry it and in the high Alps, freeze it for the Feast of Epicurus which I think is our January. In the Attic calendar it was in Gamelion which is difficult to equate to our modern calendar as it was Lunar, not Solar. Anyway, if you can help me out on understanding that, please feel free!

Its first appearance in a cookery book is in the oldest surviving book, Apicius’ “De re coquinaria” from the third century AD. Galen mentions it as beneficial to health in the second century AD and then it disappears from writings until about 1410, when it appears in al-Nefzaoui’s famous “The Perfumed Garden”, although the earliest translation into English that I can find is 1886, by the famous explorer Richard Francis Burton. I found some interesting uses for Cinnamon in that, but we’ll stick with asparagus here! It is perhaps from al-Nefzaoui that asparagus gains its (clinically unproven!) reputation as an aphrodisiac and it is documented as having been a favourite of Madame de Pompadour……..

It also, of course, has another reputation which I will ask Marcel Proust to describe: “all night long, after a dinner at which I had partaken of [asparagus] they played at ……..transforming my chamber pot into a vase of aromatic perfume”. Always overdoes it, does Marcel Look what a madeleine did to him. Nice enough with a cup of tea, but I ask you….

There is also a perception that asparagus is difficult to pair with wine. My own view is that it difficult with a tannic or oakey wine, which according to my in-house Sommelier is because of the asparagusic acid (the culprit in making Proust go over the top), which is an organosulphur carboxylic compound. This is the point at which my eyes glaze over until Roberto returns to the wine itself, preferably opening one. Anyway, his advice is to go with Sancerre, Pouilly Fume or Riesling. My favourites are Italian Verdicchio or Orvieto, but take the time to search out decent ones. Italian whites seem to be marketed in supermarkets at the “I’ll drink anything as long as it’s cheap” consumer, so it may be better to find a reliable vintner who takes Italian wine seriously.

I think I will leave the last words on asparagus to Samuel Pepys. I am quite fond of Sam although he had some less than admirable attitudes and habits; you have to have some affection for a man who, when the Great Fire of London threatened his home, thought more of saving his Parmesan cheese than his silver: “So home, and having brought home with me from Fenchurch Street, a hundred of sparrowgrass, cost 18d. We had them and a little bit of salmon, which my wife had a mind to, cost 3s” April 20 1667.

Much as I adore our wonderful English sparrowgrass, after about four weeks, however, the joy of having simply cooked fresh asparagus with either melted unsalted butter or hollandaise begins to, well, not pall exactly but I begin to cast around for Other Things To Do. Much depends on how much effort I feel like putting in, so it might be as simple as roasting it, wrapped in Parma ham and finished with flakes of Parmesan. I also have three recipes which have become firm favourites, none of which is complicated and in fact, the base recipes can be re-used with other ingredients.

ASPARAGUS RISOTTO

Print Recipe
Serves: 2

Ingredients

  • 1 bunch English asparagus
  • 75 g Carnaroli rice (Arborio can be used but I prefer Carnaroli as it produces a creamier risotto)
  • 1 shallot, chopped finely (you can use onion; shallot gives a more subtle flavour)
  • 1 clove fresh garlic, chopped finely (juicy fresh garlic is seasonal at the same time as asparagus but you can use dried)
  • 1 litre hot vegetable stock (can use chicken but I prefer to keep the “purity” of a vegetable based dish)
  • Unsalted butter
  • Olive oil
  • Finely grated Parmesan cheese - about 40g
  • White wine or dry martini (optional!)
  • Saffron, either the powdered or pistils (the crocus “threads”); if the latter, soak a couple in a couple of tablespoons of warm water

Instructions

1

Start by preparing the asparagus: snap off the bottom of the stem where it naturally wants to bend

2

Steam for about 5 minutes, drain and chop into short pieces about 1cm long; separate the stem bits from the tips as you will add them at different points

3

The snapped off end bits can be steeped in the stock to rev up the flavour, then discarded; I find this worth doing but don’t worry if you forget

4

Using a wide thick based pan (I use a Le Creuset casserole that is wide and shallow), add about 1tbsp of olive oil and a good knob of butter over a low to medium heat

5

Add the onion and garlic and soften but don’t let anything burn, keep stirring around

6

Add the rice and allow it to gain some transparency

7

Add the alcohol element - about a glassful of either a dry white wine or slightly less of dry martini

8

Turn up the heat slightly and keep stirring until the alcohol has evaporated and been absorbed

9

Add the stem pieces of the asparagus with the first ladleful of stock, stirring all the while and add the stock by the ladle, keeping an eye on the heat as you don’t want the risotto to burn

10

Adjust the heat as necessary to avoid boiling or burning

11

Add the saffron around this time but go easy with it, the risotto doesn’t need to glow in the dark!

12

After about four ladles of stock, start to check the rice - eventually you want slightly softer than al dente and don’t worry if you don’t use all the stock, or indeed if you need to top it up with hot water

13

When you get to the last couple of ladles of stock, add the asparagus tips and when the stock is absorbed, turn the heat off

14

This is the only tricky part of risotto, as you don’t want to end up with a stodgy mess, nor do you want a soup; the Italian phrase is that is should be “all’ onda” - like a wave, so you’re looking for the rice to have some movement but not sloshing around like a soup

15

At this point, stir in a couple of good sized knobs of unsalted butter and two or three tablespoons of finely grated parmesan (in truth, add to taste but try not to swamp the flavour of the asparagus)

16

Now taste for seasoning, adding salt and freshly ground black pepper to your taste

17

Serve more Parmesan at table

Notes

If you have the technique of risotto under your belt, you will open a huge reservoir of recipes that you can vary to suit what you have and indeed, what you like. Quantities can vary every time you make the same risotto, as small things such as changing the brand of rice you use can make a noticeable difference to the quantity of stock you need. I can advise you only to practice, tasting as you go and experiment with ingredients. Small things do make a big difference to flavour, such as using unsalted butter, buying good quality parmesan in a piece and grating your own and if you don’t have fresh stock, use a good powder like Marigold or a Kallo cube.