I'm always eager for the first box of English asparagus to arrive. The season traditionally straddles May and early June, and lasts just six weeks in total, but it can vary a little. This year, our box at Petersham arrived a little earlier than usual, due to the big freeze before Christmas and the warm spring we've had.
Like most vegetables, asparagus starts to lose its sweetness as soon as it is picked, so it is important to choose the freshest specimens. Spears should be firm, smooth and brightly coloured, with a vibrant bloom to the stem. Look for heads that are firm and compact.
Use asparagus as soon as possible after buying. If you need to store it briefly, treat it like cut flowers – stand the spears upright in a jar of water and place in the fridge.
Skye Gyngell is head chef at Petersham Nurseries, Richmond, Surrey, tel: 020 8605 3627, petershamnurseries.com
Asparagus with romesco and crème fraîche
For the romesco sauce
12 blanched almonds
2 tomatoes, peeled and ripe
100ml/3 fl oz extra-virgin olive oil
1 whole red chilli (the ancho variety if you can get hold of one)
2 cloves of garlic
1 tbsp good-quality sherry vinegar
1 tsp sweet-smoked paprika (I prefer Spanish to Hungarian)
1 thick slice of chewy, peasant-style bread (such as ciabatta)
For the asparagus
20 asparagus spears
A good pinch of sea salt
1 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
A few drops of lemon juice
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 tbsp crème fraîche
Heat the oven to 180C/350F/Gas4. Place the nuts on a baking tray and roast on the middle shelf for 3 minutes to colour them slightly, then roughly pound to a paste.
Next, place the tomatoes on a baking tray and drizzle with a dash of olive oil. Place in the oven along with the whole chilli, and roast for 10 minutes. Remove and mix with the nuts. Add the garlic, sherry vinegar and paprika, and mix. Blitz the bread in a blender until you have crumbs, lay them on a baking tray and bake until golden. Add to the nut mixture, pour in the remaining olive oil and season. Stir well to combine.
Place a large pot of water on to boil and season liberally with salt. While the water is coming to the boil, prepare the asparagus by snapping off their woody ends. Plunge the vegetables into the water and cook until just tender when pierced with a knife. Cooking time will largely depend on the size and thickness of the spears, but as a general rule of thumb, it should take
about 1 minutes. Drain and dress with the olive oil and lemon and a little sea salt and pepper. Divide among 4 plates, or one large plate if you prefer.
Divide the crème fraîche between the plates and sprinkle the romesco sauce over the top. Serve immediately.
Asparagus with lemon mayonnaise
Spanish asparagus has been available in the shops since mid-January, but waiting for the English variety is so much more satisfying – not unlike the wait for British strawberries. I serve it here with a simple mayonnaise, whose sharp and unctuous consistency works beautifully with the sweet flavour of spring asparagus.
3 egg yolks
The juice of one lemon
A little sea salt and black pepper
150ml/5fl oz mild extra-virgin olive oil
8 asparagus spears per person
Place the egg yolks into a blender with the lemon juice and a little salt and pepper and combine. Slowly pour the oil through the funnel in the top with the blender running, drip by drip, until it is amalgamated, forming the mayonnaise. Set aside while you cook the asparagus as per the first recipe.
Once cooked, drain in a colander and season with a little salt and pepper and a teaspoon or so of olive oil.
Arrange on four plates and place a dollop of the mayonnaise on the side. This is just as good whether it's served warm or at room temperature.
Dorset crab with white asparagus
White asparagus is the same plant as asparagus, but its shoots are banked with earth as soon as they appear, keeping them underground and preventing them from turning green. This way they remain blanched, except for the tips, which are tinged violet. The sweet white crab meat and nutty, slightly tart raw asparagus are complemented by the rich mayonnaise.
200g/7oz hand-picked fresh white crab meat (don't bother with pasteurised crab meat – its taste is very poor)
4 white asparagus stems
Juice of a lemon
1 tsp lemon zest
40ml/1 fl oz extra-virgin olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper
For the lemon mayonnaise
3 egg yolks
tbsp Dijon mustard
Juice of 1 lemons
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
500ml/17fl oz of gentle extra-virgin olive oil, such as a Sicilian or Ligurian
1 tsp finely chopped curly parsley
Prepare the mayonnaise as per the previous recipe, adding the mustard to the mix at the start. This recipe uses far more oil as it is intended to make a far thicker, glossier mayonnaise that sticks to your spoon; I like it this way, but you can use a little less if you prefer it runnier.
Place the crab in a mixing bowl. Pick over to remove any shell. Wash and pat dry the asparagus. Slice finely on the bias, discarding the tough, woody end. Place in the bowl along with the crab, add the lemon juice, zest and olive oil and toss lightly to combine. Season with a good pinch of salt and a couple of grindings of black pepper.
Finish with the parsley and divide between four plates. Spoon over the mayonnaise, and serve with extra lemon.