Spring fever: Mark Hix celebrates the start of the English asparagus season

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Indy Lifestyle Online

At this time of year, the roots and brassica recipes seem to have dragged on for a while, so the start of the home-grown English asparagus season is always extremely welcome. I'm glad to say that these days, the season tends to be much longer than the six weeks that it once was, and thanks to early cropping producers such as Jax Buse down at Great Keiro Farm in St Enodoc, Cornwall (01208 863781), the spears are being cut any time now.

I really do try to make the most of English asparagus and I even devote a whole section of my menu to it, offering it three or four different ways. It deserves to be shown off a bit because it has to compete with the cheaper imported Spanish and Peruvian spears; sadly, many of us end up going for the less expensive option, without really caring where the asparagus comes from. The one thing that really upsets me is those restaurants that serve those skinny light-green Thai asparagus at the height of our season. We should support our farmers during this time, so, if you get the chance, make sure that you buy these jolly green giants direct from the farms.

Asparagus and duck egg mayonnaise

Serves 4

Egg mayonnaise is one of those simple and delicious retro classics that you very rarely see on restaurant menus these days. But simple though it may be, it's far from boring, especially if you use a free-range duck egg and some top-notch mayonnaise.

I've added some asparagus here to make the dish a bit more interesting, as well as seasonal.

4 free-range duck eggs
400-500g asparagus with the woody ends removed
6-8tbsp good-quality or home-made mayonnaise
A little cayenne pepper to serve

Cook the asparagus in boiling salted water for 4-5 minutes until tender, then drain and refresh under cold water.

Bring another pan of water to the boil and carefully lower in the duck eggs with a slotted spoon, simmer for 5-6 minutes depending on size, then refresh under cold water for a few minutes.

To serve, peel the duck eggs, cut the asparagus in half or, if you prefer, keep them whole, arrange the asparagus on serving plates, place the egg on top and spoon over the mayonnaise. Sprinkle with the cayenne pepper.

Poached chicken with asparagus

Serves 4

This dish reminds me of my days spent at the Dorchester with Anton Mosimann when he was doing cuisine naturelle. We used to poach and steam an awful lot of meat and fish and serve some dishes containing no butter or fats. The crucial thing with this dish, however, is to use a good strong chicken stock.

4 free-range chicken breasts
500g asparagus with the woody ends trimmed
500ml good strong chicken stock
2-3tbsp olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Cut the asparagus about 3-4 cm from the tips and roughly chop the ends, reserving the tips. Cook the chopped ends in some of the chicken stock for 5-6 minutes until soft, then remove with a slotted spoon and blend to a smooth purée in a blender.

Place the chicken breasts in a wide saucepan and pour in the liquid that the asparagus has cooked in, and cover with the rest of the stock. Season, cover with a lid and simmer gently for about 6-7 minutes, then leave in the liquid.

Cook the asparagus tips in boiling salted water for 3-4 minutes until tender and drain.

To serve, re-heat the purée and spoon on to warmed serving plates and place the chicken on top. Toss the asparagus tips in a pan with some of the olive oil and season; then scatter over the chicken. Drizzle some more oil over if you wish.

Asparagus fondue

Serves 4-6

The Welsh rabbit fondue that I've been serving at the restaurants recently is going down a storm, so I hope this variation appeals to you.

500g asparagus with the woody ends removed
30g butter
30g flour
300ml milk
300ml double cream
250g cheddar cheese, grated
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Melt the butter in a thick-bottomed pan, stir in the flour then gradually whisk in the milk to avoid lumps forming. Season and simmer gently (preferably on a simmer plate) for about 10-15 minutes, stirring every so often. Add the double cream and continue simmering for 5 minutes until the sauce thickens, then remove from the heat and whisk in the cheese until melted; season to taste.

Meanwhile, cook the asparagus in boiling salted water for 4-5 minutes until tender, then drain. To serve, pour the sauce into an attractive heatproof pot, preferably on a table warmer, and dip the asparagus into the sauce.

Asparagus and prawn tempura

Serves 4

This is a great sharing dish for a dinner party – just place it in the middle of the table. Don't be tempted to buy those cheap frozen fresh water prawns for this as they taste of very little. I prefer to use the fresh Red Sea prawns which you can buy at Waitrose.

If you can't find tempura flour, then self-raising flour mixed with a little cornflour and ice-cold water will do the trick instead.

300-400g asparagus, with the woody ends removed
12 medium-sized Red Sea prawns, peeled and de-veined
Vegetable or corn oil for deep frying
80-100g tempura flour (or self-raising flour mixed with a bit of cornflour)
Ice-cold water, to mix

For the sauce

3tbsp good-quality mayonnaise
2tbsp tomato ketchup
1tbsp sweet chilli sauce
A good squeeze of lime juice, to taste

Blanch the asparagus in boiling salted water for 2 minutes, then drain and leave to cool. Make the batter by mixing the tempura flour with enough iced water to make a thickish batter; season. Make the sauce by mixing all of the ingredients together; season to taste.

Preheat 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. Do the same with the prawns. Serve with the sauce in dipping pots.

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