Monday 23 April 2018

Spear genius... Rachel Allen makes the most of asparagus

As the first of the Irish asparagus hits the shops, Rachel Allen finds many oh-so-delicious uses for one of her favourite vegetables. Photography by Tony Gavin

Rachel Allen with asparagus, one of her favourite vegetables. Photo: Tony Gavin
Rachel Allen with asparagus, one of her favourite vegetables. Photo: Tony Gavin
Asparagus and new potato salad with a poached egg. Photo: Tony Gavin

Rachel Allen

As vegetables go, asparagus has to be one of the most beautiful. Firm green stalks that look like something a soldier from the Roman Empire would throw at his enemy, rather than munch on, these edible spears are something to be made the most of at this time of the year. While asparagus can be found in the shops pretty much all year round nowadays, it does tend to be flown in from far-flung places such as Africa and South America to the detriment of the flavour and texture of this stunning little vegetable. Once picked, asparagus should be eaten as soon as possible, which is why now is the time to search out some great Irish stock while it's in peak condition.

Applauded for being full of goodies such as antioxidants, fibre and vitamins A, C, and E, asparagus loves to sit next to, or on top of, a great variety of ingredients. It can never really get enough of butter and eggs (like myself!) - and when beautifully boiled and perched on hot buttered toast before being covered with a blanket of hollandaise sauce, it is simply one of the most divine things to eat on this earth. Add a poached egg to the mix, snuggled under the hollandaise blanket, and you have an eggs Benedict-type meal fit for a king, or indeed a queen.

The size and shape of the asparagus stalk also make it ideal for dipping (a la Kim Basinger in 9½ Weeks) into hot melted butter with a squeeze of lemon juice, or any butter sauce for that matter. If you're in more of a pragmatic mood, then you'll find that an asparagus cream soup is a delicious way to start a meal, as is an asparagus carpaccio - thin slivers of the raw spears drizzled with lemon juice, olive oil, sea salt, cracked black peppercorns and a crumbling of feta over the top.

If it's sunny today, I'll be barbecuing my asparagus - tossed in olive oil, salt and pepper and cooked all over until deep golden brown - almost black. Delicious.

Asparagus and new potato salad with a poached egg

Serves 4.

You will need:

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

200g (7oz) small-to-medium new potatoes, washed

50ml (2fl oz) extra virgin olive oil

25ml (1fl oz) lemon juice

1 tablespoon chopped marjoram or tarragon

250g (9oz) asparagus stalks, approx 3-4 per person

4 eggs

4 handfuls of a lovely mixture of salad leaves

A piece of Coolea or Parmesan cheese, for shaving

First, place a saucepan of water on a high heat and add a good pinch of salt. Bring up to the boil then pop in the new potatoes, cover and boil for about 20-30 minutes until the potatoes are tender. While the potatoes are cooking, make the dressing by mixing the olive oil, the lemon juice, the chopped marjoram or tarragon, whichever you're using, and some salt and pepper to season. When the potatoes are cooked, cut them into quarters while hot, place in a bowl and drizzle with some of the lemon and olive oil dressing and season with salt and pepper. Set aside but do not chill.

Place more water, with another pinch of salt, in the saucepan and bring to the boil on a high heat for cooking the asparagus. Prepare the asparagus by snapping off the woody ends at the base of the stalks, discard the snapped end. Next, using a peeler, peel away the slightly tough outer peel from about 2-3cm at the base of the stalks. When the water comes to the boil, drop in the asparagus and boil, uncovered, for about 4-6 minutes until tender. Remove the asparagus from the water but keep the water in the pot (for cooking the eggs) and place the asparagus stalks on a plate and immediately drizzle with some of the dressing.

Bring the water back to a boil again and crack in the eggs, turn the heat to medium to let the water simmer and poach the eggs for a few minutes until the whites are set and the yolks still soft. While the eggs are cooking, place the lettuce leaves in a bowl and drizzle with nearly all of the remaining dressing - enough to just make the leaves glisten. Divide the leaves between the plates and arrange the asparagus over or around or slightly peeping out from under the lettuce, then arrange the potatoes over or around and then place a perfectly poached egg sitting on top of each salad. To finish, peel a few shavings of the Coolea or Parmesan cheese, whichever you are using, for each plate and arrange over the top, drizzle with the last of the dressing, and serve.

Wild rice and asparagus salad

Serves 4-6.

You will need:

200g (7oz) wild rice (or brown basmati rice)

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

100g (4oz) hazelnuts

75ml (3fl oz) extra virgin olive oil

2 tablespoons sherry vinegar

250g (9oz) asparagus, woody ends snapped off

25g (1oz) shavings of cheese such as a mature Coolea or Parmesan

First, rinse the rice under cold running water. Next, place a saucepan of water on a high heat, add half a teaspoon of salt and bring to the boil, then reduce the heat to medium and add the rinsed rice, wild or brown, whichever you are using. Cook for about 25-30 minutes until tender but still nutty and a little chewy. As the rice cooks, toast the hazelnuts in a dry frying pan over a medium to high heat for about 4-5 minutes, tossing regularly until golden under the skins. To remove the skins, wrap the nuts in a clean tea towel while they are still warm and rub together. The skins should come off easily. Roughly chop the hazelnuts and set aside.

In a bowl, make the dressing by mixing together all but 2 tablespoons of the olive oil with the sherry vinegar and seasoning with salt and pepper. When the rice is cooked, drain immediately and toss with half of the dressing, then place on one serving plate.

Next, place a griddle pan or frying pan on a high heat and allow to get very hot. In a bowl, toss together the asparagus stalks with the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Place on the griddle pan in a single layer and cook for a few minutes on each side until deep golden in patches and just tender.

Arrange the spears on top of the rice and drizzle over the rest of the dressing, then scatter with the toasted hazelnuts. Finally use a vegetable peeler to make shavings of the Coolea or Parmesan cheese, whichever you are using over the top of the salad. Serve immediately.

Summer prawn and asparagus spaghetti

Serves 4-6.

You will need:

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

150g (5oz) asparagus stalks

300g (10oz) dried spaghetti

250g (9oz) creme fraiche

15-20 large raw prawns, peeled and halved lengthways

The juice of 1 lemon

2 tablespoons chopped parsley

Place a saucepan of water with a good pinch of salt on a high heat and bring to the boil.

Prepare the asparagus by snapping off the hard ends at the base of the stalks, discard, then cut the stalks into slices at an angle, about 4cm (2in) long.

Once the water is boiling, add the dried spaghetti, stir and cook for 7 minutes, then add the asparagus and cook for 2-3 minutes longer, then drain, reserving 50ml (2fl oz) of the cooking liquid in the pot with the pasta and asparagus.

Place the creme fraiche in a saucepan on a high heat. When hot, add the prawns, season with salt and pepper and cook for 1-2 minutes until the prawns are just cooked.

Add the spaghetti and asparagus to the pan, then add the lemon juice and parsley.

Stir together, taste for seasoning, add more lemon juice if necessary. Then serve immediately.

Rachel's tip

Asparagus is best eaten within a day or two of buying it, and the stalks must be lovely and firm. To keep asparagus in tip-top condition after picking or buying, wrap it in wet kitchen paper, then place in a bag in the fridge.

Rachel recommends

Farmers' markets are, of course, a great place to pick up the most local of produce and for some great Irish asparagus (seeing as my own that I planted haven't been a roaring success), I'll be heading to both Midleton and Mahon Point farmers' markets.

I'll also be checking out our local SuperValu in Midleton, which stocks vegetables from Horizon Farm in Kinsale, where Colum and Liz O'Regan grow delicious salad leaves, stunning purple sprouting broccoli and many more vegetables to sell in peak condition, just out of the ground. Look out for the Horizon Farm label at a SuperValu near you.

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