Mark Hix: Spears without tears

How do you like your asparagus? White or green, thick or thin, English or Spanish? However it comes, it's a perfect ingredient. And there's no need to bother with all those bits of string, either.

Asparagus from Peru, the States and Spain is now available almost all year round. But the English variety, like our sunshine, is never here for long. The season's now about halfway through and our home-grown, vivid green shoots will be available until the end of the month. It's one of those things cooks kick themselves over if they're not quick enough off the mark. So, if you haven't already been taking advantage of it, act now and buy English asparagus. Then, when it's gone, you can move on to Spanish and Californian.

Asparagus from Peru, the States and Spain is now available almost all year round. But the English variety, like our sunshine, is never here for long. The season's now about halfway through and our home-grown, vivid green shoots will be available until the end of the month. It's one of those things cooks kick themselves over if they're not quick enough off the mark. So, if you haven't already been taking advantage of it, act now and buy English asparagus. Then, when it's gone, you can move on to Spanish and Californian.

There are many different varieties – thick white, thin white, thick green, medium green, sprue, wild. The white variety needs more care in preparation than its green cousin. You will occasionally see white asparagus at specialist shops and market stalls, but growers don't seem to be able to produce it over here so we rely on Spain, France and Holland for our supplies.

Lots of classical kitchens teach chefs to tie asparagus in bundles before cooking, though I could never understand why. If you are not careful you end up with string marks around the stems and the time it takes tying and untying it afterwards seems pointless. I've never owned an asparagus boiler, either – an upright pot with a basket – and fortunately never got one as a wedding present. The idea is that the stalks get cooked and the tips are steamed. Sounds too complicated to me. They'd be more useful for making small amounts of stock or even cooking spaghetti.

Preparation

Green

The simple rule for green is that, if it's thin or very thin (sprue), don't peel it, just cut the stalks where the pale woody bit begins. When it's as thick as a finger or thicker it should be peeled with a fine swivel-blade type peeler (not the old potato peeler which will do serious damage to the asparagus, if there's any left by the time you've finished). Start peeling 3-4cm down from the tip after cutting the woody ends off. Then cook in gently simmering, well-salted water until it's tender – 4-5 minutes for medium and a few minutes longer for thick.

White

This is trickier. Try to buy nice-looking spears as they toughen up the longer they hang around after being picked. Regardless of whether it's thick or thin, white asparagus needs to be peeled, and the woody stem removed. Peel the stems from about 1cm below the tip with the swivel-blade type peeler. A German chef who used to work for me at Le Caprice shared with us a useful cooking tip we hadn't heard before, though it's probably standard practice in Germany. Bring a pan of water to the boil with a couple of teaspoons of salt, the same of sugar and the juice of half a lemon. (Don't try this with the green asparagus, by the way.) Add the asparagus and simmer for 10-15 minutes depending on the thickness, until the stems are just tender. Remove from the heat and leave to cool in the cooking liquor. This way they retain a great sweet flavour.

Boiled duck's eggs with asparagus soldiers

Serves 4

A simple, fun dish for dinner parties, with not much preparation required. If you can't get hold of duck's eggs, large free-range chicken eggs will do.

1kg medium thickness asparagus, woody stems removed

4 duck's eggs

Maldon sea salt

Celery salt

Have two pots of water boiling, one salted for the asparagus and one for the eggs. Carefully place the eggs into the pan of unsalted water with the help of a slotted spoon. Set a timer for 6 minutes for duck eggs, a minute or so less for hen's. Remove the eggs from the water on to a plate and at the same time put the asparagus into the boiling salted pan. This will take about 5 minutes to cook while you remove the tops from the eggs.

With a small knife (you can use a special egg top remover) carefully remove the tops from the eggs, then replace them to keep them hot, and put them into egg cups on pre-warmed plates.

Check the asparagus by cutting a little off a thick end to see if they are tender. Drain in a colander, then arrange in bundles next to the eggs. Spoon a little pile of Maldon sea salt and celery salt on to each plate and serve.

Asparagus and Treviso salad with quails' eggs

Serves 4

Treviso or Trevisiano (the thinner, red-leaved, dandelion-like variety) is available from specialist shops at this time of year or can be specially ordered from a greengrocer. Its cousins, radicchio or red chicory, would be a good alternative in this simple and colourful spring salad. These leaves, which are all related, have a slightly bitter flavour so lend themselves to a delicate, sweet dressing or even to cooking. Grilled radicchio is often seen on Italian menus.

250g asparagus, prepared and cooked as before

12 quails eggs, boiled for two minutes and carefully peeled

100-125g Treviso, stalk removed, washed

a few chives

For the dressing

1tbsp good quality white wine vinegar

1tsp clear honey.

1tsp Dijon mustard

60ml olive oil

60ml vegetable or corn oil

A few sprigs of tarragon, leaves removed and chopped

Handle quails' eggs with care; use a basket or slotted spoon to lower them gently into boiling water or they will explode when they hit the bottom of the pan. After boiling, plunge briefly in cold water then remove, as they peel more easily while slightly warm. Make the dressing. You'll end up with more than you need, but it will keep in the fridge for a couple of weeks. In a bowl, whisk the vinegar, honey and mustard together and then gradually whisk in the two oils. Add the tarragon and season with salt and pepper.

Cut the asparagus into two or three pieces on the angle. Toss the Treviso leaves in a bowl with the asparagus and quails' eggs, lightly season with salt and pepper and arrange on a plate. Cut the chives into 4cm pieces and scatter on top.

Asparagus hollandaise

Serves 4

A classic way to serve asparagus, white or green. Allow about 250g of unprepared asparagus per person (the wrapper often cleverly hides woody stalks). It's normally sold in 500g bunches, so buy one for two people. Cook as before.

For the hollandaise

40ml white wine vinegar

40ml water

1 small shallot, chopped

a few sprigs tarragon

1 bay leaf

5 peppercorns

3 small egg yolks

200g unsalted butter

salt and freshly ground white pepper

Place the vinegar, water, shallot, herbs and peppercorns in a saucepan and reduce the liquid by boiling for a few minutes until there is no more than a dessertspoonful. Strain through a sieve and leave to cool.

Melt the butter and simmer for 5 minutes. Remove from heat, leave to cool a little, then pour off the pure butter where it has separated from the whey. Discard the whey. This helps to keep the sauce thick. Put the egg yolks into a small bowl (or double boiler if you have one) with half of the vinegar reduction and whisk over a pan of gently simmering water until the mixture begins to thicken and become frothy. Slowly trickle in the butter, whisking continuously – an electric hand whisk will help. If the butter is added too quickly the sauce will separate.

When you have added two-thirds of the butter, taste the sauce and add a little more, or all, of the remaining vinegar reduction. Then add the rest of the butter. The sauce should not be too vinegary, but the vinegar should just cut the oiliness of the butter. Season with salt and pepper, cover with clingfilm and leave in a warm, not hot, place until needed. The sauce can be reheated over a bowl of hot water and lightly whisked again. Either spoon the sauce over the tips of just-cooked asparagus, or serve in small bowls separately. Eat with your fingers; it tastes much better.

White asparagus with ham and Roquefort

Serves 4

When I used to spend time in St Feliu on the Costa Brava, we visited a restaurant called the Station, which was, as it sounds, an old converted railway station. The menu was long, with all sorts of things on it; our favourites were the spit-roasted lamb shoulder and chickens, cleverly positioned so you had to walk within a couple of feet of them as you entered the restaurant. It made them impossible to resist.

On reading the menu my eyes always stopped at the esparragos con Roquefort. I had visions of canned asparagus with a thick, congealed cheese sauce on top. One day one of us ordered it and, to our surprise, we found it was freshly steamed asparagus with a light fondue-like sauce delicately flavoured with Roquefort. Not Spanish, of course. They could have used Cabrales or Picos blue, but they probably nicked the idea from a French restaurant.

I can't quite remember if it was on the menu with or without ham – so I've done it with it anyway. If white asparagus is not available use green.

750g white asparagus, prepared as before

4 thin slices of cured ham such as Bayonne, Parma or San Danielle

For the sauce

175g mascarpone cheese

50g Roquefort, cut into small pieces

10g chives, finely chopped

salt and pepper

Melt the mascarpone in a thick-bottomed pan and simmer for about a minute until it thickens. Stir in the Roquefort and chives, season with salt and pepper and put to one side. Meanwhile prepare and cook the asparagus as described before, drain on some kitchen paper and place the stems side by side on some plates. Lay a slice of ham over the stems, not covering the tips, reheat the sauce and spoon over the ham.

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