A love letter (by way of France) to the 'food people' springtime obsession that truly deserves all of its accolades.
Welcome to ingredient, where once a month I take a deep dive into some of my favourite seasonal and store cupboard ingredients. This month I’m focusing on asparagus, those delicious green spears with a delicate, springtime flavour that rapidly becomes every chef and food writer’s obsession the moment it arrives - a fitting tribute, I think, for ingredient’s first birthday this month.
For paid subscribers click here for my recipes for my Asparagus in Lumpfish Caviar Beurre Blanc, Raw Asparagus, Lemon, Hazelnut & Pecorino Salad, and my Asparagus, Lemon & Dill Tart.
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I never liked asparagus growing up. I never understood it: to me, it was just another green vegetable like all others, something I was never going to love before I started cooking it myself. My mother, on the other hand, has always been an obsessive, and whose behaviour very much set the bench mark for how I source my asparagus today. We were always on the lookout, driving the rural back lanes of the Kentish countryside for signs on farm gates that delicate spears of green (always green in Kent, though sometimes tinged attractively purple) farm gate asparagus were for sale.
I always marvelled at the price she was willing to pay for a bunch - rivalling another family farm gate obsession, Kentish cherries in the height of summer - and I’d watch her methodically snap off the woody stems before blanching then swiftly in a splash of boiling water and a sprinkle of Maldon sea salt in the microwave. Always the microwave: unless I’ve incorporated my asparagus into another recipe - for example in my delicious roasted asparagus and goats curd Dutch baby pancake in One Pan Pescatarian (pg 57), it’s always the microwave for me, and the only vegetable I’d think of giving that treatment to to yield perfectly cooked spears.
But it was not the Kentish asparagus I buy in the bunch-full now that sold me on this springtime chef’s obsession, it was French asparagus, white asparagus, the slightly pale and anaemic you’ll find all over French farmers markets at this time of year.
France is a big part of the reason I love food, and somewhere I could not imagine never being able to cook and eat in again, but it was not until a press trip to the Perigord region in the Dordogne Valley did I properly explore French eats outside of the stone fruit and rosé saturated south where my grandparents lived as I was growing up, or the pork, apple, mussel, oyster and savoury buckwheat galette-fuelled north of my parents former home. Part of my heart will forever remain in Brittany, but there is something about the Dordogne that passionately captured my imagination, and from just two short visits the flavours of the region remain with me still, the local walnut liquor I adore, their little Gariguette strawberries (my parents grow them here in Kent but they don’t quite taste as good as the ones from the Dordogne - sometimes commanding up to £9 for a handful at Borough Market - or have a perfume as good as the ones I once served simply in a massive bowl at the end of the the only dinner party I ever threw at the French house, during a heatwave so powerful none of us could wear makeup as it simply melted off our faces within moments) and the simply steamed, butter drenched white asparagus I can still remember biting into for the first time.
With its delicate flavours and characteristic crunch the flavour envelopes the palette with something simple, something clean. Its presence on the plate as well as being something special to taste, heralds spring. Which is what made me finally come around to green English asparagus too: it tastes verdant, of the promise of delicious things to come, of the true start of summer (not that you’d know it with the weather at the moment!) As I mentioned, it goes hand in hand with strawberries and the first offerings of both of these wonderful local treats is a sign of the abundance to come.
As a kitchen gardener, asparagus also piques my interest as it is a rather unusual vegetable to grow, helping contribute to its usually lofty price for a humble vegetable: it takes three years after planting an asparagus crown until you get spears from it ready for the table, and they’ll be taking up space in your plot as they need to be grown in the ground, rather than containers all year, even though they have roughly just a 6 week harvesting period.
Some people may raise their eyebrows at my mother’s microwave method, but with a timer set for your average spear I think it really does cook asparagus perfectly: tender, but with a good amount of bite. You need that crunch in order to properly enjoy that grassy flavour: cook it too much and it will take on the memory over over cooked kale, done until slightly brown and highly undesirable. So, a light tough works here: raw asparagus, thinly shaven is also a delight, as you’ll see below.
For this months recipes, I decided to go for, what is to me, the three best ways to enjoy new season asparagus, still staying true to my belief that you should not do too much to it, or serve too much alongside it.
First, a spring starter if you happen to be entertaining that looks super fancy with luxe ingredients and French techniques but which, like my Scallop & Radish Crudo is actually a doddle to throw together in just 10-15 minutes depending on how speedy you are in the kitchen: my Asparagus with Lumpfish Caviar Beurre Blanc. Simply cooked asparagus, doused in a buttery white wine and spring onion (for a milder, springtime touch rather than the traditional shallot) reduction with a few dollops of my entertaining secret weapon: lumpfish caviar. It looks pretty on the plate, it’s sharp, salty (but in a very good way) and comes in at just under £6 for a 50g tub which, trust me, goes miles even if you’re just plopping it down as part of a seafood platter. The caviar melts into the buttery sauce - butter being one of asparagus’ true partners - for a restaurant-quality dish in minutes I’ve also been known to devour using my fingers for an indulgent solo lunch with the end of a homemade loaf to mop up the buttery, caviar-infused sauce.
Next, we’re going raw with my Raw Asparagus, Lemon, Hazelnut & Pecorino Salad. It is one of those salads you don’t want to sit around as the lemon will soften the raw asparagus slices causing them to lose their characteristic crunch, but with sharp, creamy, salty pecorino cheese, warming, crunchy toasted hazelnuts and just a hit of acidity from the lemon juice you’ll see a whole new side to asparagus serving it this way, perfect on it’s own for an asparagus-lovers dream lunch bowl, or as a side salad for a simple spread.
Finally, you’ve got my Asparagus, Lemon & Dill Tart. Simple and rustic using my freezer stand-by of a pre-rolled sheet of puff pastry and a jazzed up cream cheese filling the fresh, springtime flavours of this flaky tart serve as a foil for tender, roasted asparagus spears, and nothing more. Serve this one with a simple dressed salad, and a grassy white wine perhaps; a Portugeuese Vinho Verde would be just the ticket.
I like how the French tend to allow their white asparagus to develop a touch of purple near their crowns...or as they say, the asparagus needs a kiss from the sun. Total contrast to the ultra white German or Swiss varieties I normal see at the market. I also have a lot of asparagus memories - your article ushered me down those cheery memory lanes...thanks!