Green shoots: Mark Hix celebrates the first asparagus of the season

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Their appearance is a sure sign that spring is on the way.

Last year I had a lovely surprise in August when I was sent some second-season asparagus from a pioneering farmer in the Wye Valley. I wrote a column about them – only to receive a letter from one reader who obviously hadn't read the text, taking me to task for writing about asparagus out of season!

Anyway, on 1 March we were sent the first of this season's asparagus, again from the Wye Valley, and while I'm often slightly dubious about receiving asparagus that early, they had a fantastic flavour.

Pork tenderloin with creamed wild garlic and asparagus

Serves 4

It's a lovely time of year to combine a quick-cooking cut like a pork tenderloin with some foraged wild garlic leaves and asparagus. If you can't find wild garlic, then use crushed garlic instead.

500g pork tenderloin
1-2tbsp vegetable or corn oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
200g asparagus, cooked and cut into lengths on the angle
A couple of handfuls of wild garlic leaves, washed and dried
150ml double cream
60g butter

Heat the vegetable oil in a frying pan, season the pork and cook on a medium heat for 8-10 minutes, turning the pork as it's cooking and keeping it slightly pink. Tear the wild garlic leaves in half and simmer in the cream until it has reduced and is coating the wild garlic. To serve, warm the asparagus in a pan in the butter and season. Spoon the wild garlic on to warmed serving plates, slice the pork and lay on top, then spoon the asparagus over.

Asparagus and monk's beard spelt

Serves 4

Spelt makes a great alternative to rice in a risotto-type dish. If you can't find monk's beard, or agrette as it's known in Italy, just use chopped chives and chervil.

2tbsp olive or rapeseed oil
150-200g spelt, soaked for 3-4 hours in cold water
1ltr vegetable stock
150g asparagus, thinly sliced on the angle
100-150g monk's beard, trimmed of any roots and washed, or 2-3tbsp of chopped herbs, as above
100ml double cream
100g butter
80g finely grated Parmesan
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Heat the olive oil in a pan, add the spelt then gradually add the vegetable stock in 4-5 stages, making sure the liquid is absorbed before adding the next bit. Cook the spelt for about 30-40 minutes until tender, adding more stock if necessary and seasoning and tasting as it is cooking. Add the asparagus and monk's beard and continue cooking until the asparagus is tender; then add the butter, cream and Parmesan and cook for a couple more minutes.

Re-season if necessary and add a little more stock to adjust the consistency; it should be fairly wet. Serve immediately.

Asparagus with Asian mushrooms

Serves 4

When mushrooms are out of season, I always keep a stash of dried black mushrooms. Asian supermarkets normally have a great selection.

150-200g asparagus with the woody ends removed
50g dried black fungus, soaked in water for 2-3 hours
1tbsp sesame oil
200g fresh Asian mushrooms as above, trimmed and sliced if necessary
6 spring onions, trimmed and sliced on the angle
2-3 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed
50g root ginger, scraped and finely grated
A handful of pea shoots or a bunch of watercress
2tbsp soy sauce
2tbsp roughly chopped coriander

Cook the asparagus in boiling, salted water for 2-3 minutes and drain. Then cut into lozenges on the angle. Meanwhile, cook the black fungus in lightly salted water for about 15 minutes, then drain and cut into bite-sized chunks.

Heat the sesame oil in a frying pan or wok; stir-fry the spring onions, garlic, ginger, asparagus, pea shoots (or watercress) and mushrooms for a minute or so. Add the soy sauce, a couple of tablespoons of water and the coriander, simmer for 30 seconds and remove from the heat. Serve immediately.

Asparagus and crab fritters with mayonnaise dip

Serves 4

These make great little nibbles with drinks or you can serve them as a starter.

Vegetable or corn oil for deep frying
150g asparagus with the woody ends removed
150g freshly-picked white crab meat
70g self-raising flour (I use Dove's Farm gluten-free)
Enough water to make a light batter
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2-3tbsp good-quality mayonnaise

To make the dip, cut the asparagus about 3cms from the stalks and cook the ends in boiling, salted water for 5-6 minutes until soft. Drain and blend in a liquidiser or food processor until fairly smooth. Leave to cool, then mix with the mayonnaise and season to taste.

Thinly slice the remaining raw asparagus on the angle and mix in a bowl with the crab, flour and enough water to make a thickish batter and season. Preheat about 8cm of oil to 160-180C in a large, thick-bottomed saucepan or electric deep-fat fryer. Drop dessertspoonfuls of the mixture into the hot fat and stir occasionally with a slotted spoon for a couple of minutes until nicely coloured and crisp; drain on kitchen paper. Scatter with some salt and serve with the dip.

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