Green shoots: Mark Hix cooks with asparagus

The surest sign of the arrival of spring, says our resident man in the kitchen, is the appearance of the season's very first asparagus.

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Indy Lifestyle Online

Things start to get a little bit more exciting on the vegetable front at this time of year – and three weeks ago I received a delivery of the season's first asparagus from the Wye Valley, which arrived in pristine condition despite the snowy weather. It's great that our asparagus growers have the enthusiasm to get the season off to the earliest possible start. British asparagus is one of the most celebrated of all vegetables and we should certainly make the most of them during their short season.

Shaved asparagus and Cashel blue salad

Serves 4

Thinly-shaved raw asparagus make a great and unusual salad. You can also add other shaved raw vegetables to this salad, such as fennel and radishes; and most cheeses, from goat's to Parmesan, will work well too.

8 thick stems of asparagus, woody ends trimmed
A couple of handfuls of small tasty salad leaves and herbs, washed and dried
120g Cashel blue cheese

For the dressing

30ml cider or white wine vinegar
2tsp Tewkesbury or Dijon mustard
40g Cashel blue cheese
120ml vegetable oil
30ml water

To make the dressing, blend all of the ingredients in a liquidiser, season to taste and adjust the consistency with a little water if it is too thick.

Cut the asparagus into long strips as thinly as possible on the angle; you can also shave f it into long strips with a mandolin, though be careful of cutting your fingers! Leave in iced water for 20 minutes, then drain and dry.

To serve, arrange the salad leaves and asparagus on serving plates, spoon over the dressing and break the cheese into nuggets on top.

Pizza with taleggio

Makes 2 pizzas, serving 4-6

Pizzas are good fun to make at home – they are so versatile. Once you get into the swing of making them you can have all sorts of fun with family and friends. You can make the toppings as simple or as sophisticated as you wish.

To vary this pizza bianco, try adding a little freshly chopped oregano or rosemary over it before cooking, or you could even shave a bit of truffle over the top to make it more luxurious.

For the base

500g strong white bread flour, plus extra for dusting
1x7g sachet fast-action yeast mixed with about 150ml warm water
1tbsp clear honey
3tbsp olive oil
2tsp salt

For the topping

500g asparagus, woody ends trimmed
2tbsp freshly-grated Parmesan
150g taleggio, sliced
Olive oil, to serve

To make the pizza base, mix all the ingredients together in a food processor (with the dough hook attachment) for 2-3 minutes to form a stiff dough, adding more water during mixing if the dough isn't coming together.

Cover the bowl with clingfilm; leave to prove in a warm place for a couple of hours until the dough has doubled in volume. Remove the dough from the bowl; knead it back to its original size on a lightly-floured table.

Using a floured rolling pin, roll the dough out to form a slipper shape roughly 30cm in length. Transfer the pizza base to a piece of lightly-floured greaseproof paper. Leave the dough to rise a little under a tea towel in a warm place for 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, cook half of the asparagus well in boiling salted water; drain and blend to a coarse purée with the Parmesan and season to taste. Cut the rest of the asparagus in half lengthways.

Preheat your oven to maximum heat; place a circular pizza stone or baking tray inside to heat up for 20 minutes. Take your pizza base, slide it on to your pizza stone, spread over the purée and arrange the asparagus and the taleggio on top. Bake in the oven for 12-15 minutes, or until the cheese has melted and the crust is golden. Serve immediately, drizzled with a little olive oil.

Japanese asparagus and duck's egg omelette

Serves 2

A square Japanese omelette pan is normally used for this snack but you can get away with a non-stick pan. Sometimes dashi is used too, made with dried seaweed and bonito flakes.

2 duck's eggs, lightly beaten and seasoned
A little vegetable or corn oil
4 asparagus spears, cooked and finely chopped
1 spring onion, finely chopped
Nanami Togarashi chilli flakes, to serve
Pea shoots or salad leaves, to garnish

Mix the spring onion and asparagus together, then heat your pan just rubbed with a little oil. Pour in half the egg mixture and move the pan around so the mix just coats the pan, then scatter in half the asparagus mixture; once the egg mixture is almost set, remove the pan from the heat and roll the omelette up as tightly as you can, or you can just fold it over a couple of times, then transfer to a chopping board. Repeat with the rest of the egg and asparagus mixture.

To serve, slice the omelette and arrange on a serving plate; scatter over some pea shoots or salad leaves and the chilli flakes.

Asparagus with crispy lamb's sweetbreads and capers

Serves 4

Ask your butcher for the heart sweetbreads, which are plumper and less sinewy.

250g plump lamb sweetbreads
A little olive or rapeseed oil for frying
300-350g asparagus, woody ends removed
2tbsp capers, rinsed
60g butter
1tbsp chopped parsley

Put the sweetbreads in a pan of cold salted water, bring to the boil, simmer for a minute; drain. Leave to cool; remove any sinewy membranes and cut them into even-sized pieces. Heat a tablespoon of oil in a pan, season the sweetbreads; fry them on a medium heat for 4-5 minutes, turning them as they are cooking until they begin to crisp.

While the sweetbreads are cooking, put the asparagus in boiling salted water for 3-4 minutes until just cooked; drain. Add the butter to the pan with the sweetbreads until it begins to colour; remove from the heat; stir in the capers and parsley.

To serve, arrange the asparagus on warmed serving plates and spoon the sweetbreads, capers and butter on top.