Buds of May; Tender spears to savour in spring

Asparagus flies the flag as a die-hard seasonal vegetable. There is an expression that accompanies that first, home-grown trickle early in the season: traders and shopkeepers can be heard muttering, "Silly money". Sometimes they are content to leave it at "stupid". The asparagus needn't even be the best; it's just rare.

White asparagus, adored by the French, has a habit of being sillier than green. Close up it is extremely beautiful, and it's easy to see why it's modelled in white chocolate in chichi chocolate shops - thick, ivory spears, streaked with pink, with squat heads about half-an-inch long.

A recent Sunday lunch kicked off with a plateful of these, boiled and eaten with butter: any other way would be sacrilege - unless, that is, you were to dip them into a soft-boiled egg. The spears were unbelievably sweet and succulent, and I can wholly empathise with the French when they are that good.

The other rarity is wild asparagus, spindly spears that could be mistaken for hop shoots, and are prized for their pronounced bitterness. With things wild enjoying a renaissance, you can expect to find it on happening menus as well as in specialist greengrocers and delis.

My own acquaintance with wild asparagus stems from southern Spain, where triguero is found in vast, tangled piles in the markets during spring. It barely requires cooking - just boiling for about a minute - and makes the most wonderful, frittata style of omelette, or can be mixed into a shellfish salad.

Asparagus does have an image of being a vegetable of the gods: only they can afford to live off it, and there may be some truth in this if it is white, wild or early. But green spears are the mainstay of our asparagus diet. And remember that, when you have trimmed your spears to the point where they stop being tender, there is another couple of inches of stalk that will be too tough to eat. This can be finely sliced and made into a puree, a soup, a sauce or a mousse.

Asparagus has a deceptively strong flavour, and its character carries well. Optimum gluttony, to my mind, is an asparagus risotto, in which the spears sit in creamy rice infiltrated with its perfume. You then make a thin sauce with the trimmings to pour over it - a sort of double whammy.

And towards the end of the season, just at the point where you are beginning to think "I've had enough, let's move on to samphire", peas arrive on the scene. If there is one thing that could possibly beat an asparagus risotto, it's one made with asparagus and peas.

A family quarrel almost erupted recently when my mother rang to inform me of a brilliant discovery: if you don't possess an asparagus steamer, a circular grater inside a saucepan will double up. "But you don't need a special asparagus cooker," I replied. "Yes, you do," she countered, "otherwise the tips cook more quickly than the base."

Oh no, you don't. Special asparagus cookers, which allow the base of the stem to boil in water while the tips steam, are a bit of a nonsense. I suspect they stem from the days when all vegetables were given a matter- of-course 20 minutes' rolling boiling, by which time your asparagus would indeed have disintegrated at the tip.

Times have changed. Now that we cook vegetables no longer than is necessary - about 4-5 minutes in plenty of boiling, salted water for thick asparagus, half that for thin sprue - both tip and stem should be ready simultaneously.

Griddled brochettes of asparagus, serves 4

These look wonderful, a neat row of spears lined up on a skewer and grilled. Eaten with soy sauce and sesame seeds, this is asparagus at its plainest, and it makes a change from butter. Keep these in mind for the barbecue season.

800 g/134lb finger-thick asparagus

extra-virgin olive oil, for grilling

black pepper

dark soy sauce, toasted sesame seeds, to serve

Trim the asparagus spears to where they become visibly woody, and stick them on four metal skewers. Heat a griddle over a low heat. You will need one that covers two rings, if you want to cook them in one go - but there is nothing to stop you doing them in batches and serving the asparagus at room temperature.

Paint the brochettes with olive oil, season with black pepper, and grill for 5-7 minutes each side until nicely charred. Serve with a few drops of soy sauce and a scattering of sesame seeds.

Asparagus quiche, serves 4-6

for the pastry

I egg yolk (size 2)

12 tsp caster sugar

12 tsp salt

60ml/212fl oz water

65g/212oz unsalted butter, diced

250g/9oz plain flour, sifted

for the filling

310g/11oz finger-thick asparagus

I egg (size 2), plus 2 egg yolks

200ml/7fl oz milk

200ml/7fl oz double cream

sea salt and black pepper

55g/2oz grated Parmesan

To prepare the pastry, mix together the egg yolk, sugar, salt and water. Rub the butter into the flour. You can do this in a food processor. Bring the dough together with the egg and water mixture, and knead for a few minutes, then wrap in cling film and rest it in the fridge for 45 minutes.

Heat the oven to 190C (fan oven)/200C (electric oven)/400F, gas mark 6. Lightly flour a work surface and roll the pastry 0.25cm/18in thick. Line a 23cm/9in diameter, 3.5cm/112-in deep tart case with a removable base, and trim the top. Line the case with foil or baking parchment and baking beans (or other dried pulses), and cook for 15 minutes. Remove foil and beans and cook for another 5 minutes, until just starting to colour.

While the pastry is baking, bring a pan of salted water to the boil. Trim the asparagus to where it becomes visibly tough, halve the spears, boil for 3 minutes, drain, and reserve. Whisk together the egg, egg yolks, milk and cream, season, and stir in half the grated Parmesan.

Arrange asparagus on the base of the tart case, pour over the custard, and sprinkle over the remaining grated Parmesan. Bake for about 30 minutes, until the custard is set and the surface is nicely golden. Eat warm or cold.

Asparagus mousse with Melba toast, serves 6

This is pure, old-fashioned elegance: a moulded asparagus mousse with the tips set into it, eaten with wafer-thin Melba toast. It makes a perfect dinner party starter, and you can prepare it the night before.

The Melba toast can be made some hours in advance. If you are short of time, cheat by making the modern equivalent: thin toast.

for the mousse

500g/1lb 2oz finger-thick asparagus

2 shallots, peeled and finely chopped

25g/1oz unsalted butter

275ml/2 pints double-strength vegetable stock

sea salt and black pepper

114 sachets gelatin

275ml/12 pint double cream

lemon juice, to taste

Bring a large pan of salted water to the boil. Slice the tips off the asparagus so they are 7.5cm/3in long. Finely slice the remainder of the spears, discarding the really woody ends. Boil the tips for 4 minutes, then plunge into a sink of cold water, remove and reserve.

Melt the butter in a small saucepan and sweat the shallots until they are translucent, about 30 seconds. Add the sliced asparagus and sweat for 4 minutes. Pour in the stock, season, bring to the boil, cover, and simmer over a low heat for 8 minutes. Liquidise and pass through a sieve into a bowl.

Sprinkle the gelatin over 3 tablespoons of just-boiled water. Leave for several minutes, then stir to dissolve. If necessary, stand it in a second bowl of boiling water for another few minutes. Combine the gelatin solution with the asparagus puree, cover, and chill for an hour.

Whisk the cream until it forms soft peaks, and combine with the asparagus base. Season to taste with plenty of lemon juice, and more salt and pepper if necessary. Arrange the cooked tips in a circle on the base of an 18cm/7in souffle dish (or equivalent), so the tips point towards the centre. Pour the mousse on top, carefully so as not to disturb the spears, cover, and chill for several hours, or overnight, until set.

To serve, run a knife around the edge of the mousse and turn it out on to a plate. Serve it in wedges, accompanied by Melba toast.

Melba toast

1 small loaf day-old white bread

Preheat the grill and slice the bread 0.75cm/13in thick, leaving the crusts on. Toast on both sides to a pale gold, then slit each piece in two using a sharp bread knife. Scrape away the crumb from the uncooked sides with a blunt table knife. Now toast again, uncooked side uppermost, watching continuously as the edges curl upwards, It should be completely dry and brittle. Stack the toast into a precarious pile

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