Spears of destiny: Hix spruces up asparagus

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We all love asparagus with a simple melted butter sauce. But Mark Hix also has more sophisticated recipes to offer. Photographs by Jason Lowe

It seems as though our native asparagus growers are out to beat those cheap imports from far-flung places such as Peru and Thailand by getting this year's first harvest into the shops as early as possible.

I was surprised this year to see lovely purple-headed spears from Kent as early as mid-March at Tony Booth's Borough Market stall in London (020-7378 8666). Good on them, I say – the British asparagus season is a short one, so any excuse for celebrating as early as possible is fine as far as I'm concerned.

The asparagus grower Jax Brise is based in north Cornwall near the St Enodoc church where Sir John Betjeman is buried. In fact, the Betjeman family still owns part of the field where Jax grows her asparagus, and, as it is situated by the sea under the shelter of Brae Hill, the area has a great little micro-climate which means that their asparagus harvest is one of the earliest in the country. The sea air also gives the asparagus a unique flavour, as the salt air is blown across the fields throughout the winter.

Where asparagus is concerned, the simplest techniques are often the best, such as serving the spears with Hollandaise sauce, vinaigrette or melted butter, or even as soldiers dipped into a soft-boiled duck egg.

Once you've mastered the basics, however, you might want to move into more adventurous territory, so this week I have decided to give you some slightly more creative asparagus recipes.



Scallops and asparagus with ponzu

Serves 4

It almost seems a shame to cook freshly dived and shucked scallops. When they are served raw, scallops can be every bit as good as oysters, and they make a perfect Japanese starter with slightly crunchy and thinly sliced, blanched asparagus.

You can get many different varities of ponzu, which is a citrus-based condiment, in Asian and Japanese food shops, as well as in some of the better supermarkets.

4 large or 8 medium scallops, freshly shucked and cleaned
8-12 asparagus spears, trimmed of their woody stalks
Sea salt
1tbsp chopped chives
2tbsp ponzu

Cook the asparagus in boiling salted water for 1-2 minutes keeping them crunchy then drain and refresh under cold water for 20-30 seconds to stop them cooking any longer. Thinly slice the scallops and cut the asparagus as thinly as possible on the angle leaving the tips intact.

Arrange the scallops and asparagus on serving plates and sprinkle with a little sea salt then drizzle over the ponzu and scatter with chives and serve immediately.



Deep-fried asparagus in cider batter with spring herbs

Serves 4

Deep-frying asparagus in a light crisp batter makes a delicious snack, starter or canapé with a glass of fizz. You can vary the sauces you serve this with and perhaps give the dish an Asian twist and serve the Vietnamese fish sauce Nuoc cham or wasabi mayonnaise. You can use the packet tempura batter for this or, as I'm suggesting here, a beer or cider batter. I suggest using a cider such as Julian Temperley's Burrow Hill bottle-fermented cider or Gaymer's single variety.

300-400g asparagus, with stems removed
Vegetable or corn oil for deep frying

For the batter

100g self-raising flour
30g corn flour
Sparkling cider to mix
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

For the herb sauce

2tbsp chopped spring herbs such as chervil, tarragon, parsley and chives
2-3tbsp good quality or homemade mayonnaise

First, make the batter: mix the self-raising flour and cornflour together, season and add enough cider to make a thickish batter. Make the herb sauce by mixing the herbs with the mayonnaise and season to taste.

Pre-heat about 8cm of oil to 160-180C in a large thick-bottomed saucepan or electric deep-fat fryer. Dip the asparagus in the batter a few pieces at a time, drop into the oil and cook for 2-3 minutes, turning with a slotted spoon until lightly golden, then remove and drain on some kitchen paper and sprinkle lightly with sea salt. Serve with the herb mayonnaise on the plate or in little dishes.

Risotto with asparagus and St George's mushrooms

Serves 4

Asparagus and St George's mushrooms are the perfect match in a silky risotto, but you may need a forager to source you this particular sort of mushroom. You could also try using imported or wild morels, or, failing either, cultivated mushrooms.

1kg fine asparagus
300g St George's mushrooms
4 large shallots, peeled and finely chopped
30ml olive oil
350g carnaroli rice
1.25ltrs vegetable stock
60g freshly grated Parmesan
90g butter
A couple of tablespoons of double cream
1tbsp chopped parsley
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Remove the woody stalks from the asparagus and cut the rest into 7-8 cm pieces. Cook in boiling salted water for 2-3 minutes until tender. Remove any dirty stalks from the mushrooms and brush or wipe them clean then cut them into even-sized pieces if large or leave whole if small. Cook them on a medium heat in a frying pan with about 30g of the butter for about 2-3 minutes without colouring them too much, then put to one side. To make the risotto, take a thick-bottomed pan, heat the olive oil and fry the shallots slowly for a few minutes, without allowing them to colour. Add the rice and stir well with a wooden spoon. Gradually add the stock a little at a time, stirring constantly and ensuring that each addition has been fully absorbed by the rice before adding the next.

When the rice is almost cooked add the asparagus, mushrooms and the Parmesan, then add a little more stock and then finally add the butter, double cream and parsley: the risotto should be quite moist. Season to taste with salt and pepper and serve imediately.

Asparagus with red wine butter

Serves 4

This is a great little variation on the melted butter theme.

500-600g asparagus with any woody ends trimmed off

For the red wine butter

4 small shallots, peeled and finely chopped
1tbsp good-quality red wine vinegar
Half a glass of red wine
1/2tbsp double cream
120g unsalted butter, butter, chilled and diced
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Simmer the shallots, vinegar and red wine in a pan for a few minutes until you just have about a tablespoon left. Add the double cream and simmer until it's reduced by half then remove from the heat and whisk in the butter to form a smooth sauce. Season to taste and cover until the asparagus is cooked.

Cook the asparagus in boiling salted water for 3-4 minutes or until tender; or you can steam them for 7-8 minutes instead. Serve hot with the butter poured over.

To see Mark Hix's exclusive cookery videos, see http://www.independent.co.uk/hixcooks

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