A true sign of late spring, early summer - and hopefully more stable times to come - is the popping up of the spear-like vegetable, asparagus. Loved by cooks and artists alike, asparagus has a statuesque, almost Gothic beauty, and a flavour that's hard to beat at this time of the year. It's in season from now until the middle of June; you'll find grocery shops and supermarkets selling these lovely Irish-grown green stalks that just adore being barbecued, boiled or baked.
Some cooks like to peel asparagus, removing the skin from all but the head of the spear. I don't do this, though it is definitely worth snapping off the woody ends. The French invented a saucepan solely for cooking asparagus, in which the spears stand up, so their bases are boiled and their heads are steamed, but for me, placing them lying down in an ordinary saucepan works perfectly.
My favourite way to eat asparagus is to first boil it whole in salted water for about 6 to 8 minutes then serve it on buttered toast, along with lashings of home-made hollandaise sauce, as in the recipe, far right.
If I want to do something else with it, asparagus shines in a starring role in tarts, soups or salads, such as the crab and Thai mayonnaise recipe, also far right.
Boiled spears of asparagus are also delicious wrapped in prosciutto or Serrano ham. Asparagus is ideal for barbecuing - just toss the spears in olive oil, a pinch of lemon zest and a little sea salt, and cook them for a few minutes on each side. Delicious.
Asparagus also loves cheese, like goat's cheese, ricotta or feta, and when it is paired with lots of grated Parmesan and cream in the classic Alfredo sauce, tossed through pasta ribbons, as in this recipe, right, it is simply heaven on a plate.
You will need:
6 asparagus spears
4 tablespoons mayonnaise
1 clove garlic, crushed
¼ to ½ a chilli, seeded and finely diced (optional)
Freshly grated zest of ½ a lime
3 tablespoons nam pla fish sauce
2 teaspoons chopped fresh coriander
225g white crab meat
Freshly squeezed lime juice
4 slices of delicious bread (white, brown or sourdough)
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 First, prepare and cook the asparagus. Break off the woody ends - hold each spear of asparagus with your thumb and index finger near the root end and break it, as if you were snapping a twig. The spear will snap at the point where it begins to get tough.
2 Cook the asparagus in a saucepan containing about three centimetres of boiling salted water for 3-4 minutes, or until a knife tip will pierce the root end of a spear easily. Refresh the asparagus spears in cold water, and drain them.
3 Next, make the Thai mayonnaise. Put the mayonnaise into a bowl, add the crushed garlic, the finely diced chilli, if you are using it, the freshly grated lime zest, the fish sauce and the chopped fresh coriander. Taste, and correct the seasoning.
4 Mix the crab meat with the Thai mayonnaise. Add a little freshly squeezed lime juice to taste and correct the seasoning.
5 Toast the bread on both sides. Drizzle the toast with some extra-virgin olive oil, and scatter the slices with a few rocket leaves. Divide the crab and Thai mayonnaise mixture among the four pieces of toast. Toss the asparagus spears in a little extra-virgin olive oil. Split the spears lengthwise and place three pieces diagonally along the top of each slice of crab toast. Serve immediately.
You will need:
12 asparagus stalks
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
450g tagliatelle pasta
65g finely grated Parmesan cheese, plus extra, to serve
A small grating of fresh nutmeg
1 Choose a saucepan that will be able to comfortably accomodate all the cooked pasta.
2 Add 150ml of the cream and all of the butter to the saucepan and simmer over a medium heat, uncovered, for about 5-6 minutes, until the butter and the cream have thickened. Turn off the heat.
3 While the cream and butter are bubbling, prepare the asparagus stalks. Snap off the woody ends, then cook the spears in boiling salted water for 4-5 minutes until they are just tender, then drain them. Cut the asparagus into slices at an angle, and set them aside.
4 Bring a large saucepan of water to the boil. Add three teaspoons of salt, then drop in the pasta, stir well, and cover the pot until the water returns to the boil. Remove the lid and boil the pasta until it is al dente, keeping in mind that it will continue to cook a little when it is drained. Remove a cupful of the cooking water - you might need it later - then drain the pasta.
5 Turn the heat to low under the saucepan containing the cream and butter mixture, and toss in the cooked pasta, coating it with the sauce. Add the rest of the cream, the finely grated Parmesan, and season with some salt, freshly ground black pepper and some freshly grated nutmeg. Add the sliced asparagus, and toss everything briefly until the pasta is well coated. Check the seasoning, adding more salt and freshly ground black pepper if necessary. Serve the tagliatelle Alfredo immediately, from the pan - place an extra bowl of freshly grated Parmesan on the table.
6 If you need to reheat this dish, add a splash of the reserved pasta cooking water to loosen the sauce, otherwise it'll be too thick.
If you are storing asparagus for a few days, for long-lasting freshness, keep it in a brown paper bag in the fridge.
2 egg yolks
1 tablespoon water
A squeeze of lemon juice
12 asparagus stalks
4 slices of delicious bread
1 Put the egg yolks in a small-to-medium saucepan, one that has a good heavy base if possible.
2 Cut the butter into 1cm cubes, and keep them somewhere very close to the hob. Add the water into the saucepan and place the pan sitting over a low heat. Immediately add a couple of cubes of butter into the pan and start whisking the mixture to blend/emulsify the butter into the egg yolks. Always make sure to have a couple of cubes of butter in the pan, adding more whenever any are mixed in with the egg. If the pan gets too hot, the mixture will scramble, which you don't want. Ensure that it doesn't overheat by regularly placing your hands around the sides of the pan - if the pan is too hot to do that, then it's too hot for the eggs. Regularly take the pan off the heat (and put it back on) to prevent the mixture overheating. Never leave the sauce unattended on the heat.
3 When all the butter cubes have been added, you should have a rich, yellow, thickened sauce. Take the pan off the heat and add in a squeeze of lemon juice to flavour the sauce. The hollandaise shouldn't require salt if you've used salted butter, however, if you've used unsalted butter, add salt to taste. Use the sauce straightaway, or if you wish, you can keep it warm.
4 To keep it warm, pour it into a heatproof jug, such as a Pyrex measuring jug, and sit the jug in a saucepan containing steaming-hot water - but not boiling water. Heat up the water as it cools, but beware as the sauce can still scramble (or split) at this stage. If you allow the sauce to cool, and then heat it up, it will split, so temperature control is crucial with this sauce, as it is with any emulsified butter sauce.
5 If the hollandaise has been keeping warm for a while, it might thicken a little, in which case you'll need to add a small splash of water to thin it out.
6 Once the sauce is made, cook the asparagus. Snap off the woody ends from the base of the stalks, then place the spears in boiling salted water and cook them on a high heat for about 4-5 minutes, until they are tender. Drain them (see Rachel Recommends, below).
7 While the asparagus is cooking, toast the bread.
8 Butter the toast and put it on warm plates, then place the drained asparagus on the buttered toast and pour the warm hollandaise sauce over the top. Serve immediately.
When serving asparagus on toast with hollandaise sauce, sit the drained asparagus on kitchen paper for a minute to drain the last bit of moisture.
If you like, you can use freshly chopped mint in place of the coriander in the crab and asparagus with Thai mayonnaise recipe.
Photography by Tony Gavin
Sunday Indo Life Magazine