Crunch time: The ABC of green vegetables
Christopher Hirst celebrates asparagus, broad beans, and cucumbers
Asparagus is a monarch among vegetables, one of the very few that constitutes a dish by itself. Its taste is akin to fresh peas at their peak of sweetness, though the handsome spears have the added bonus of crunch and are perfectly designed for enrobement with sauce.
Our appreciation of asparagus has changed little since 1629, when herbalist John Parkinson declared that it was "a sallat of as much esteem with all sorts of people, as any other whatsoever, being boiyed tender, and eaten with butter, vinegar and pepper, or oyl and vinegar, or as every ones manner doth please".
This verdant embodiment of spring should be consumed pretty much constantly during its six-week season. Yes, at other times you can buy imported spears flown halfway round the world, but why bother when British green asparagus is so good? And what's the point in having seasons if you have nothing to look forward to?
Twenty years ago, my insatiable appetite for asparagus involved visiting a Kent farm for bundles of fat spears. Now they are available – and cheaper – from supermarkets. Asparagus bought there lacks the uniform length of the posh stuff destined for restaurants but the taste is just as good. Make sure the spears are fresh – plump, crisp and without wrinkles – and cook them as fast as possible after purchase, since the plant continues to convert its delicious sugar to dreary starch.
In removing the woody, inedible fag-end of the spear, the world is divided into snappers and cutters. I'm among the former, snapping each spear at the natural breaking point towards the root. My preferred method of cooking is to steam the spears in a wok with a trivet, but they can be simmered upright in a tall, lidded pan with a little water. Remove when al dente. Most chefs agree with Fergus Henderson's one-word suggestion for an accompaniment: "Butter!" Alternatives are hollandaise or a dressing of two parts olive oil to one part lemon juice, thickened with grated Parmesan.
Whatever the dressing, I stick to the traditional method of eating asparagus with my fingers. (There is no alternative if you follow Jane Grigson's suggestion of using them as soldiers for a freshly boiled egg.)
However, you might bear in mind PG Wodehouse's description of one character eating asparagus: "Revolting. It alters one's whole conception of man as nature's last word." One oddity of asparagus is that you will later be vigorously reminded about its consumption; its tendency to scent urine prompted its nickname in the era of chamberpots as "the chambermaid's nightmare". In the 19th century, a French writer pointed out the tell-tale risk for straying husbands: "Asparagus... has more than once betrayed an illicit dinner." Some people think they have the saint-like ability to eat asparagus without the aftermath. They don't. We all make the pong, though a few can't smell it. Despite this olfactory upshot, asparagus is a most delightful rite of spring. Do tuck in.
Creamed asparagus soup
Asparagus makes one of the finest soups, especially with the slender spears known as sprue. To make soup for four, fine-chop one onion and fry in olive oil for five minutes until transparent. Add 500g/1lb chopped asparagus and fry for another three minutes. Add 500ml/17fl oz of chicken stock plus a splat of white wine or vermouth. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Bring to the boil and simmer for eight minutes. Add three tablespoons of crème fraîche, then blend with a hand-blender until smooth. Delicious served warm or chilled.
Broad beans are a highlight of the season in the Med. Marcella Hazan, regarded by many as the finest Italian cookery writer, describes them as "the most alluring of fresh beans, regrettably limited to a short period in early spring". From a host of broad-bean dishes, she most looks forward to "the first young tender broad beans that I shell and eat raw... with coarse salt and pecorino". She also advocates whizzing up peeled, raw broad beans with grated Romano cheese, olive oil, lemon juice, fresh mint, black pepper and a little garlic to make "a creamy emulsion" that can be used as pasta sauce, a condiment for meat or merely spread on bread.
Jacques Médecin, a corrupt mayor of Nice who nevertheless wrote an authoritative book on cuisine Niçoise, recommended the inclusion of "200g small broad beans" in salade Niçoise. They should, of course, be raw. You wouldn't dare introduce them to boiling water after reading Médecin's ardent injunction, "If you want to be a worthy exponent of Niçoise cookery, never, never, I beg you include boiled potato or any other boiled vegetable in your salade Niçoise."
Despite our love affair with Mediterranean cuisine, the broad bean remains undervalued in Britain. When veg are placed on the table, there can be a small but perceptible groan if broad beans appear instead of peas. This was not always the case. In her Vegetable Book, Jane Grigson noted that the white and purple flowers of broad beans once provided "a sweetness of spring round many villages". And the rural poet John Clare wrote, "My love is as sweet as a bean field in blossom."
So why did this delicious seasonal treat fall from favour? It might be because we allow broad beans to grow too large and bland in their velvet-lined pods. Another reason is that we've scarcely ever adopted the Continental habit of removing the skin of broad beans. Though a bit of a fag (slip a fingernail under the skin), this transforms a commonplace vegetable into a luxury. In her fine book Flavours of Greece, Rosemary Barron explains that Greek cooks prefer to remove the skins of even young beans "to reveal the pretty shade of green within. Without their skins, broad beans are easier to digest and have a subtly different flavour."
Young broad beans should be snapped up the instant you see them on sale, at their juvenile peak. Whether you have them in a salad – Yotam Ottolenghi does a terrific one with avocado, radish, lemon and quinoa – or exploit their affinity with cheese, you will be enjoying the green essence of spring. At the Soho landmark restaurant Quo Vadis, now enjoying a revival following the arrival of chef Jeremy Lee, a new starter combining broad beans, peas and goat's milk cheese is going down a storm. The first nibble elicits an equal and opposite reaction from the aforementioned groan: happy sighs all round.
Goat's cheese, broad beans and mint
Cook 30g/1oz peas and 30g/1oz broad beans until tender. Skin and roughly chop the beans. Crush the peas with a fork. Combine the peas and beans, then add 350g/11 oz Tymsboro goat's cheese and mix coarsely, adding a handful of ripped mint leaves, a few spoonfuls of good olive oil, sea salt and ground pepper. Mix until a soft texture is achieved and serve with very thin slices of bread cooked crisp with olive oil in the oven. (Jeremy Lee insists that Tymsboro from the Mendips is "vital", though I managed a fair imitation of his sensational original with Pant-Ysgawn Farm soft goat's milk cheese from Waitrose. Excellent olive oil is essential.)
Cucumbers provide freshness, crunch, potent flavour and a surprising source of humour. The innocent gourd has been utilised for joke purpose by figures as diverse as Dr Johnson ("a cucumber should be well sliced, and dressed with pepper and vinegar, and then thrown out as good for nothing") and Ken Dodd ("What a lovely afternoon for waggling a cucumber through a neighbour's letterbox and shouting that the Martians have landed"). Even Samuel Pepys' aside, "This day Sir W. Batten tells me Mr Newburne...is dead of eating Cowcoumbers," must be 17th-century black humour.
Though now available throughout the year, the cucumber comes into its own with the return of the sun. I can never see a production of The Importance of Being Earnest, the most perfect of summer comedies, without feeling ravenous for the cucumber sandwiches ("Why such reckless extravagance?") consumed in Act 1.
Ideal for the rare treat of afternoon tea, these delicate, slender, evanescent constructions are the polar opposite of overstuffed American club sandwiches. Exploring the cucumber sandwich, an American food blog called The Paupered Chef admits with surprise, "You'll enjoy real insubstantial delight." Sadly, instead of the canonical simplicity of thin-sliced bread, butter, cucumber, salt and pepper, the blog advocates a gussied-up version incorporating cream cheese, onion salt and garlic powder. Less is more remains anathema across the Atlantic.
Cucumber's happy affinity with salmon and crustaceans is a mainstay of British spring cuisine. But it is possible to go much further than the poached salmon topped with "scales" of overlapping cucumber slices that has sustained countless wedding parties. In her book about Cornish fish cookery, The Fish Store, Lindsey Bareham suggests adding a mixture of crabmeat, peeled cucumber slices, olive oil, cayenne and lemon juice to warm linguine. The late Jeremy Round invented a marvellous cold cucumber and prawn soup in which sautéed cucumber is liquidised with prawn-shell stock. Allow to cool, stir in cream and prawns before serving.
Prescribed as a medicine for Emperor Tiberius, cucumbers were grown for him on cold frames that could be moved to catch the sun ("like hospital patients", writes Jane Grigson). In his forthcoming book Heritage Fruits & Vegetables, Toby Musgrave states that cucumbers were cultivated in Thailand 10,000 years ago. Victorian passion for the vegetable (really a fruit) led to "fiercely contested competitions" between Cucumber Clubs. The splendidly named spherical hybrid "Crystal Apple" was one result.
Now the fourth-most cultivated vegetable in the world, cucumbers remain a mainstay of Mediterranean and Levantine cuisine, though for dishes such as Greek salad or tzatziki, you should seek out the smaller versions sold in Turkish supermarkets, both tastier and crunchier than the familiar plastic-wrapped ones. Since I came across it in Ariana Bundy's new book Pomegranates & Roses, a Persian cucumber recipe called salad-e shirazi has made a regular appearance on my table.
Cut 4 to 5 small cucumbers, two ripe tomatoes and 1 red onion into small cubes of equal size. (Blanch the cubed onion in very hot water for 1 minute then plunge into cold water to curb its aggression.) Mix in a serving bowl with 2 tablespoons of red-wine vinegar, 2 tablespoons of olive oil, 6 chopped mint leaves, 1 teaspoon of dried mint, salt and pepper, and serve immediately.
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