Right! That’s it! At last I can put winter behind me. Yes, I know the weather isn’t quite lunch-outside, barbecue-on-the-deck, and oh-for-an-icy-glass-of-sangria weather and the sun is not gonging down every day as we hope it will in summer but things are changing for the better. We’ve reached that time of year when I find that the wonderful comfort food of winter is no longer as wonderful or comforting as it was. The casserole has done its brumal bit and can retire for a season or two or turn to lighter duties like patés and terrines. It is spring and I am ready for all its fresh, seasonal wonders. The first of them may be a little late this year but it is here at last, asparagus, locally grown and at a price that doesn’t call for an arrangement with the bank.
Like all vegetables, asparagus is best eaten as soon after harvesting as possible so although it will keep for a few days in a refrigerator, either upright with the cut ends in a couple of centimetres of water or in a plastic bag, it is better to buy it as you need it. Look for straight, firm stems with tight, undamaged heads and no signs of drying at the cut end. The thickness of the spear is a matter of taste, for thin ones are not necessarily younger or more tender than thick.
There are special pots for cooking asparagus on sale in the sort of kitchen shops that also sell special pots for cooking pasta and special pots for cooking rice etc, etc but why go to the expense and clutter up the cupboards when an ordinary saucepan or steamer will do nicely. Cookery doyennes like Elizabeth David and Jane Grigson recommended cooking the asparagus spears upright and tied in a bunch so that the stems cook in water and the tops gently steam. I’m happy to bend the spears so that they snap where the woody parts end then cook the tender parts sideways, either in boiling water or a steamer.
The first asparagus of the season I serve as simply as possible, cooking until just tender then dipping it in some melted butter, good olive oil, homemade mayonnaise or Hollandaise sauce and eating it with my fingers. Perfect.
As the season progresses there are other ways to enjoy asparagus. It is beautiful grilled on a hotplate or the barbecue then served on toasted sourdough with some pan-fried salmon and topped with a poached egg.
This sauce is divine with grilled asparagus:
Garlic, Sun-Dried Tomato and Almond Sauce for Asparagus
1 small unpeeled head of garlic in cloves
3 sun-dried tomatoes (or oven-dried)
¼ cup blanched almonds
½ tsp wine vinegar
Extra virgin olive oil
Pre-heat oven to 180˚C then roast garlic for 15 minutes. Cook the almonds in the oven until brown, about 4 minutes. Peel the garlic then put into a food processor together with the almonds, tomatoes, vinegar and salt and blend until smooth. With the motor running, gently pour in the olive oil until a mayonnaise- like sauce is formed. Taste for seasoning. If you cut the cooked asparagus into smaller pieces and adjust the amount of sauce, this can turn pasta into something very special.
A simpler way of serving asparagus with pasta is to soften the spears in a pan with butter, strips of courgettes and either pine nuts or walnuts, then pour everything over cooked fettuccine and toss with a squeeze of lemon juice and some snipped garlic chives or spring onion tops. For something more flash you could add to this ribbons of Parma ham or shavings of Parmesan, or both.
The first meal Donna ever prepared for me was spears of cooked asparagus on toast covered with a cheese sauce and grilled until golden. For a spring afternoon tea nothing beats well-made asparagus rolls in fresh brown bread, buttered and with just a hint of Dijon or honey-seeded mustard or luxury of luxuries, a slice of smoked salmon and instead of toast soldiers try asparagus with your soft-boiled egg. Asparagus stir-fries well for Chinese and Thai dishes and is splendid stirred into a risotto and then there’s asparagus soup…
But should you not like asparagus, don’t worry; spring also brings New Zealand broad beans, strawberries, courgettes, globe artichokes, snow peas, rocket and new potatoes.
Isn’t spring clever?