Along with English strawberries and Scottish raspberries, grouse, wild salmon and pink rhubarb, our asparagus season is something to be looked forward to and cherished. Its very brief season, when they're good and plentiful, is almost part of its allure. Indulge till they've gone! Who wants a spear of jet-lagged asparagus in the dark days of January?
I saw some fresh wild morel mushrooms, another springtime treat, in a smart food shop the other day. Albeit if not at quite the same price (morels can fetch anything up to 40 quid a kilo) as a humble bundle of asparagus, the seasonal combination of these two cooked together is as special as great eating gets. If you are lucky enough to know where to forage for these extraordinarily fine fungi (they are in the fields now, so hurry along!), then all you need to do is briefly boil some asparagus, fry the morels gently in plenty of butter, squeeze in a little lemon juice, and stir in a good sprinkling of snipped chives. Spoon over the green spears and there you have it. Field mushrooms picked in the early-morning dew would be an easier, though none the less toothsome, alternative.
There is a lot of nonsense talked about the best way to cook asparagus. Take no notice whatsoever of those who would tell you that the strangely shaped asparagus pan is the thing to use. First of all, it costs a princely sum (all useless cooking equipment is costly), and, being tall and thin, it is always falling over. The idea is that the asparagus is placed in the wire mesh insert which fits inside the pan, tips uppermost. Boiling water is added half-way up the pan. This is said to cook the thicker part of the spear and allow the more tender tips to "steam to tenderness" as a result. Balderdash.
All that is necessary to cook perfect asparagus is a deep-ish pan that would, I suppose, be as wide as the stupid asparagus steamer is tall. This then allows you to bring plenty of well-salted water to the boil (the more water you use, the less time it will take to bring back to the boil), fling in the asparagus and cook for about five minutes, once the water has returned to a fast rolling boil. Lift out with a fish slice (you may tie the spears in bundles for easier removal, but they will not cook as evenly); and lay onto a folded tea-towel or, for stylish presentation, directly onto a folded and pristine damask napkin.
Incidentally, anyone who tells you asparagus might take 20 minutes to cook through should also be telling you that you might like to open a can instead.
This first recipe is for using cooked asparagus. It is a dead elegant dish, which I first learnt to make about 25 years ago. Its name is delice d'Argenteuil, and was on the menu of my first place of work, La Normandie Restaurant in the hinterland of Bury in Lancashire. If, at the end of the evening, there were any of these little delices left over, this keen apprentice chef would take them home and further perfect his hollandaise making - the sauce that accompanies them. He was also a greedy little sod.
Les delices d'Argenteuil, serves 4
The Argenteuil region, close to Paris, is thought to be the finest area for cultivating asparagus.
4 thin slices of prosciutto, halved
24 cooked asparagus spears, not too long
For the pancake batter:
110g/4oz plain flour
1 egg yolk
275ml/12 pint milk
50g/2oz butter, melted
a smear of nut oil for cooking the first pancake
For the hollandaise sauce:
3 large egg yolks
225g/8oz unsalted butter, melted and the surface froth removed
juice of 12 small lemon
salt and white pepper
First make the pancake batter and the pancakes. Simply put all the ingredients in a liquidiser and blend well. Pour through a sieve into a jug and allow to stand for at least half an hour. Using a 6"/15cm frying pan, heat a little of the nut oil and allow to become hot; tip out any excess. Pour in enough batter to cover the base of the pan. This first pancake is usually a bit of a mess, so chuck it out and start afresh.
You should not need to use any extra butter as you cook the pancakes, just a trace now and again as the pan becomes dry (the melted butter in the mix usually provides sufficient lubrication). Make the pancakes as thin as you dare, flipping them over in the usual way with a palette knife, and then lay out on a damp tea towel as each one is cooked. The yield should be slightly more than 8 pancakes, but this is always better than not enough.
To make the hollandaise, put the egg yolks in the stainless steel pan and add a dessertspoonful of cold water. Using a thin and whippy wire whisk, beat the yolks and water together briefly before placing over a very low light. Continue whisking in a fluid, circular motion until the mixture starts to lighten and becomes frothy. As you continue to beat, watch carefully as the egg yolks lose some air and start to cook, thickening and becoming creamy and pale. The yolks are ready to receive the butter when they are thick enough to keep the marks of the whisk quite distinctly. Remove from the heat and place on a work surface with a damp dishcloth under the pan (this keeps the pan steady, leaving you free to pour in the butter while whisking with your other hand).
Continue whisking the egg yolks as you gradually add the butter in a thin stream. You can speed this up a bit as the sauce starts to gain body and become glossy and voluptuous. At the same moment that you start to see the milky residue in the bottom of the pan about to join the last of the (clear) butter, you will also notice that the sauce has become very thick indeed. This is the time to add a touch of that milky residue, just to loosen the sauce a little - about a dessertspoonful, no more. Add the juice of the lemon, according to taste, and season with salt and pepper. Keep warm.
Pre-heat the oven to 375F/190C/gas mark 5, also light an over-head grill. Lay a piece of prosciutto onto each pancake and place three asparagus spears on top. Roll up the pancake with the join underneath and place in a lightly buttered baking dish. Repeat with the other seven pancakes, leaving space between each rolled pancake. Bake in the oven for about 15 minutes until pale golden and slightly crisp. Allow the dish to cool for about five minutes, then carefully spoon some of the sauce along each pancake, coating each one evenly. Put under the grill, not too close to the heat, and allow the sauce to take on a pale golden glaze. Note! This only takes a matter of seconds, so keep watch. Allow two pancakes per person.
Asparagus risotto, serves 4
One of my all-time favourite risotti.
1 bundle of asparagus, woody bits chopped off and lower part of stalk trimmed (keep these for flavouring the stock)
700ml/114 pints chicken stock
1 medium onion, peeled and finely chopped
4 very thin rashers of rindless streaky bacon, finely sliced into strips
200g/7oz best arborio rice
150ml/5fl oz dry white wine
1 tbsp freshly chopped mint
salt and pepper
25g/1oz extra butter
4tbsp freshly grated Parmesan, or more
Put the asparagus trimmings in with the stock and simmer for 30 minutes. Strain through a fine sieve making sure you press down well on the debris to extract maximum flavour. Keep on a low light. Chop the main stalks of the asparagus into thick slivers, cut on the diagonal but leave the tips whole. Quickly boil these tips in plenty of boiling salted water, for about two minutes, until just tender. Refresh under cold running water for a few seconds, drain and dry on kitchen paper. Reserve.
Melt the butter and fry the onion and bacon in a heavy-based pot until the onions are pale, pale golden and the bacon a bit frizzled. Add the rice and stir around over a meagre flame until well coated with the butter. Pour in the white wine and allow to bubble gently until evaporated. Add the slivers of asparagus stalk and stir in. Now, keeping the pot on a low light, start to add the hot stock, a ladleful at a time, allowing each addition to be fully absorbed before introducing the next, and keep gently stirring with a wooden spoon. Add the asparagus tips about two-thirds of the way through the cooking process.
Check the texture of the rice as you go along; it should be cooked through yet firm, but not "chalky" in the middle. You may not need all the stock. The resultant texture should be sloppy but not soupy. My ideal description of a perfect risotto is that when it is spooned onto the plate, it should still keep moving for a few seconds, like an exhausted lava flow.
Add the mint and stir in, check for seasoning before adding salt, but grind in plenty of pepper. Take the pot from the heat, stir in the extra butter and cover for 5 minutes. Mix in a tablespoon or so of the Parmesan and serve onto hot plates, handing extra Parmesan at table
Simon Hopkinson is 1997's Glenfiddich Food Writer of the Year for his writing in this magazine