It’s that time of year again: when whatever has just come into season dictates supper. Asparagus will be around until June, overlapping briefly with its wintry counterpart, purple sprouting broccoli. I like them both, but purple sprouting is around for months, while the asparagus season always seems too short. I feel rejuvenated by the very sight of it. It reminds me of hyacinths. You can imagine the tops of asparagus spears developing into lavender-tinged blooms. Of course they don’t, but asparagus is a member of the same family.
I cook differently in these weeks, with the feeling of abandonment that comes with summer, even though it’s still a while off. It’s asparagus every third day in my house, mostly cooked simply. The first meal is warm asparagus with melted butter. You need good bread too – various types work but early on it’s a plain white loaf.
The second meal is asparagus with fried eggs, good extra-virgin olive oil, a bit of balsamic vinegar, seasoning and shaved Parmesan. You might think Parmesan would be too strong, but no. The flavour of asparagus seems to become more assertive when you pair it with Parmesan. I love the sense of messy celebration as I cook with my sons. There’s the cheese shaver, the asparagus preparer, the egg frier, all fighting for space at the hob. You have to cook nimbly so that the asparagus is the right degree of tenderness, and the eggs are on point. You need bread again – ciabatta this time – so you can mop up the final bit of egg yolk as it mingles with the olive oil. This sounds extravagant, but asparagus with eggs? It’s cheaper than meat or fish.
Antonio Carluccio, who I worked with for a while, showed me how to get rid of the woody end by feeling for the point at which the spear has a natural bend. Then you cut or break it there. This seems wasteful, but cook the discards in water and use them for soup or to add to asparagus risotto.
How to cook it? I have a tall cheap pot with a metal basket inside. I don’t often give room to things that have limited use but I’m glad, every year, to pull out the asparagus steamer. No pot? Use a wide saucepan, put boiling water – about 4cm – in the bottom. Tie the asparagus together and lean it against the side so that the bases cook in the water and the tips cook in the steam (the pan must be covered).
As the season goes on there are hundreds of dishes you can make with asparagus (about half of them, admittedly, with eggs), some of them surprising. Just read on…
Try asparagus with…
In the Veneto they take warm hard-boiled eggs (use four) and whizz them in a food processor with eight anchovy fillets, 1 tbsp of capers and 1½ tbsp white wine vinegar while slowly adding 200ml extra-virgin olive oil. They serve this with white asparagus but it’s good with green too.
In French cooking a dish called ‘mimosa’ indicates the presence of finely chopped hard-boiled eggs. Keep the eggs as warm as you can, pour melted butter on steamed asparagus, sprinkle on the eggs and season.
If you roast asparagus with olive oil – the time it takes depends on size but reckon on 8 minutes at 200C fan – it can take assertive Mediterranean treatments, such as black olive and bacon vinaigrette, or Hollandaise with the addition of chopped anchovies (these melt as you heat them in olive oil, then add them to your Hollandaise).
Have a poached egg on asparagus with anchovies, melted as above, and chopped sautéed shallots.
Romesco sauce – made with roast peppers and tomatoes, smoked paprika, nuts (I like hazelnuts), garlic, vinegar and extra-virgin olive oil – works well with roast asparagus too. Add a spoonful of crème fraîche to each plate along with toasted hazelnuts.
Serve steamed asparagus with crab mayonnaise – mix white crab meat with mayo, chopped chervil and chives – and put a small spoonful of salmon roe on top.
Steamed asparagus with sautéed wild summer mushrooms, pea purée and a drizzle of melted butter is an elegant side.
Asparagus with dippy eggs and smoked salmon and soldiers
I use Karaway Bakery dark rye with sunflower seeds for the soldiers (available from Ocado), as it tastes great with the salmon. The individual slices of this loaf are quite small, hence the suggestion that you might need 8 slices (two per person).
Even though it makes things quite messy I put the asparagus in melted butter. Asparagus without any gloss doesn’t look that appetising. You have to offer napkins, as people will need to wipe their hands.