Tips for the top

Delicious on their own, perfect for soups, tarts and salads. Mark Hix gets a taste for spring asparagus
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I used rarely to cook green asparagus until the English season started its brief six-week run. Now, I have to admit I'm not as excited by its arrival as I used to be. Of course, we wouldn't dream of offering asparagus on menus in December, but we have a bit of leeway, when the first of the season's Spanish green and white asparagus arrive, and why shouldn't we show them off when they're at their best? Sometimes there are even specially grown varieties with an appellation showing their origin and status.

I used rarely to cook green asparagus until the English season started its brief six-week run. Now, I have to admit I'm not as excited by its arrival as I used to be. Of course, we wouldn't dream of offering asparagus on menus in December, but we have a bit of leeway, when the first of the season's Spanish green and white asparagus arrive, and why shouldn't we show them off when they're at their best? Sometimes there are even specially grown varieties with an appellation showing their origin and status.

It's not as if they have come from the other side of the world. But I do particularly feel for the English asparagus farmers struggling to keep up with our demands, and with the temperamental weather affecting their crops. Even home-grown asparagus has become part of the mix, for the precious few weeks when it's in season. Nevertheless we should be proud of our asparagus and make the most of it to support the growers. What's more there is something about deferring the pleasure of it until you know it's been grown close to home and just picked. Try buying from a farm shop or market for the best and freshest.

It was in Spain, though, where I was lucky enough to sample truly wild asparagus for the first time. It was served on its own as a starter and felt to me like a vegetarian version of elvers, the tiny eels that you rarely see here. Ironically, although elvers are caught in the river Severn, they're mostly enjoyed in Spain. Scott's in Mayfair, and J Sheekey and The Ivy have been serving them this month. The season is even shorter than that of asparagus, and they're more expensive than gull's eggs so I won't give you a recipe for them.

Anyway, the wild asparagus was more like overgrown blades of grass to look at than asparagus, but it left me with a privileged feeling of having tried something most people never get the chance to. There is a form of cultivated wild asparagus which you can buy in the poshest greengrocers and food halls – it looks a bit like a garlic chive with an ear of corn on the end – but it doesn't really have much in common with its genuine wild cousin. Since then I have been pleading with suppliers to try to source the really wild thing, and low and behold 10 years down the line we finally have it. Not much though, but we have the delicate little spears in our possession and at a hell of a price (but I can't tell you the name of the supplier, unfortunately).

White asparagus shoots are another relatively new thing on the market that gives us more flexibility on our menus, although they do taste a bit oriental to me. They are harvested, as the name suggests, just as they are sprouting, and before they have developed any green colouring.

In its grown-up condition, though, plump sweet stems of white asparagus can be delicious simply served on their own with melted butter. Or match them with savoury accompaniments such as air-dried hams, or tuna and cheesy sauces. f

Preparation

It's easy to forget from one year to the next how to prepare asparagus. I know my guys at work seem to. So I'll give a few reminders. Don't bother tying the spears in bundles before cooking or using fancy asparagus cookers. For the green, just a pot of good old boiling salted water does the trick. Nice and easy.

If green asparagus is thin (about the thickness of a pencil) or very thin (sprue), don't peel it, just cut the stalks where the pale woody bit begins. When it's as fat as a finger, or thicker, the bottoms of the stalks 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 about 4-5cm (11/2-2in) down from the tip after cutting off the woody ends. Then cook in gently simmering, well-salted water until tender: 2 minutes for sprue, 4-5 minutes for those of finger thickness and a few minutes longer for thick.

White asparagus is different. Its been covered with soil to keep out the light and blanch it. Try to buy thick white asparagus as the flavour is much better. Some spears grown on the continent can be 2-3cm thick, but the Germans and French tend to keep the big stuff for themselves. The skin is pretty stringy, so it needs peeling almost up to the tip. Cut the woody part of the stalk off and then peel it from about 2cm from the tip with a swivel peeler. Boil in salted water with a teaspoon of sugar and the juice of half a lemon added per litre. Once cooked keep the asparagus in the cooking liquid until required as this will improve the flavour and it will also keep in the liquid for a day or so. Cooking time is longer than green and it can take 20 minutes or so depending on the thickness.

Mixed asparagus with black fungus

Serves 4

This is a good way to use the oriental-tasting white asparagus shoots (below). We have it on the menu at Bam Bou in Percy Street in London and we change the asparagus according to what's around. It may be wild, it may be white and green or just a mixture of several types. Black fungus is normally sold dried in oriental supermarkets and occasionally fresh as Jew's Ears. If you can't find them then the more easily available shiitake or another Oriental fungus will do.

60g dried black fungus, soaked for 24 hours in water
600g asparagus, green and white or some wild if you can get it, trimmed and cooked as above
30g white asparagus shoots (optional)

for the dressing

1tsp finely chopped lemongrass bulb
1tsp finely chopped root ginger
1tbsp rice wine vinegar
1/2tbsp mirin (optional)
4tbsp sunflower oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Simmer the black fungus in salted water for 1 hour then drain them in a colander. Cut the asparagus in half if they are long and put them into a bowl with the black fungus and asparagus shoots. The black fungus may need cutting into smaller pieces if they are large. Mix all the ingredients for the dressing and season with salt and pepper. Toss the asparagus and mushrooms with the dressing and season if necessary. Serve as a starter or a side dish as part of an Oriental meal.

Asparagus and chervil soup

Serves 4

You often find cheap asparagus on market stalls or you may be cooking a dish which only requires the tips. So a good spring asparagus soup is the ideal way to use the rest. It can be served hot or cold and you could add a spoonful of creamy goat's cheese to it if you wish. Like most soups it's important not to cook the hell out of it. The soup should be simmered for only as long it takes for the asparagus to become cooked enough to blend.

2 medium leeks, roughly chopped and washed
500g asparagus with the woody stalk removed, roughly chopped
1tbsp olive oil
1litre vegetable stock (Marigold or a good quality cube)
1tbsp chopped chervil
1tbsp double cream or more if you wish

Gently cook the leeks in the olive oil in a covered pan for 3-4 minutes until soft. Add the asparagus and vegetable stock, bring to the boil, lightly season with salt and pepper and simmer for 10-15 minutes or until the asparagus is just soft enough to blend. Blend until smooth in a liquidiser, then strain through a fine-meshed sieve. Check the seasoning and add a little more salt and pepper if necessary. Add the double cream and chervil, bring back to the boil and serve.

Asparagus tart with sauce mousseline

Serves 4

This tart makes a good starter or a light lunch snack with a salad. You could even take it on a picnic. If you want to be really adventurous you could lay alternate white and green spears of asparagus on the tart.

1kg medium asparagus
500g puff pastry
1 egg, beaten
30g freshly grated Parmesan
50g butter
Sauce mousseline to serve

Roll the puff pastry to 1/3cm thick, leave it to rest for 15 minutes then cut 4 rectangles, 14cm x 11cm. Prick them all over with a fork to prevent the pastry rising too much, then put them on a baking tray. From the rest of the pastry cut 1cm-wide strips as long as you can. Brush the edges of the rectangles with egg. Lay the strips along all four sides, and trim them to form a ridge all the way round. Mark these edges by pressing half-moons all over them with the blade of a knife or use a special pastry crimper. Then brush the edges with beaten egg. Leave to rest in the fridge for 1 hour.

While the pastry is resting cut the woody stalk from the asparagus and discard, then trim to 10cm from the tip and reserve the rest. Bring 2 pans of salted water to the boil, cook the tips for 3-4 minutes until tender then drain and refresh in cold water to stop them discolouring. Cook the trimmings for about 7-8 minutes until soft and then drain and coarsely blend in a liquidiser or food processor with the Parmesan and butter. Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper.

Pre-heat the oven to 160°C/320°F/gas mark 3. Bake the pastry for 7 minutes and remove from the oven. Turn up the oven to 200°C/390°F/gas mark 6.

Spread about a tablespoon of the asparagus purée in the middle of each tart. Don't put too much in; save what's left as a dip or sauce. Then lay the asparagus tips, as close together as you can, on the purée. Cut and butter some pieces of tin foil just large enough to cover the asparagus but not the edges of the pastry. Season the asparagus with salt and freshly ground black pepper and lay the foil on top buttered-side down. Bake the tarts for 15 minutes and serve immediately with sauce mousseline spooned over or served separately.

Sauce mousseline

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
100ml double cream, whipped

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 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. Just before serving fold in the whipped cream.

Scrambled eggs with wild asparagus and prawns

Serves 4 as a starter

During the asparagus season in Spain, the skinny wild asparagus is often bulked up in this sort of dish as a tapas, light starter or even for breakfast. Small prawns freshly cooked and peeled seem to work best for this dish as the meatier tiger prawns are a little too heavy handed. If you can find fresh prawns or small raw frozen ones and cook them yourself then all the better.

8 medium-sized free range eggs, beaten
80g butter
50ml double cream
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
150-200g fresh or frozen small raw seawater prawns, cooked in the shells and peeled
150-200g (depending on the woody stalk waste) wild or sprue asparagus, trimmed and cooked

Melt 40g of the butter in a heavy-bottomed pan, add the eggs and season with salt and freshly ground white pepper. Stir over a low heat until the eggs are just cooked but still on the runny side. Meanwhile reheat the asparagus and prawns in the rest of the butter and season with salt and pepper. To serve, spoon the eggs on to a plate and scatter the prawns and asparagus on top.

Mark Hix has been shortlisted in the newspaper cookery writer category of the Glenfiddich food and drink awards

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