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Cooking with asparagus

Yorkshire asparagus appeared phenomenally early this year, yet poor Evesham, south of Birmingham, was hit by floods.

The farm I buy direct from in Fife was almost a month later than normal getting under way: snow fell on April 3, a time when the ground should be warming.

The silver lining to these clouds is that asparagus is still going strong and should edge past the traditional cut-off time of midsummer's day. What used to be considered bad form – serving asparagus after June 21 – might, this year, be a necessity for the long-suffering farmers.

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For me asparagus means the green bundles of these shores, not the white ones favoured on the continent. It is in fact the same stuff, white asparagus being buried to shield it from the light. The skin toughens on the white and must be peeled and I find the flesh more sour, even bitter. Recipes always urge you to add sugar to the cooking liquid, which tells its own story.

So, green it is. Discard the woody inch or so at the base. The middle section of the stems can be sliced for risotto or soup. The tips, of course, are the real prize, their elegant shape adding lustre to any dish. Peeling the stems is optional, necessary only for the thickest spears I would say. For the greatest eating pleasure, do the minimum possible, boiling firm, fresh stems and serving as quickly after buying as you can manage.

Boiled green asparagus with cheese cream and soft poached egg

Serves 4

20-25 spears of asparagus, allowing 5 or 6 spears per person depending on thickness

300ml double cream

50g parmesan, grated finely at the last moment

Salt and fresh ground black pepper

4 large free-range hens eggs or duck eggs

1. Trim and discard the woody base an inch or so from the asparagus spears. With a swivel-head peeler, peel lightly from just beneath the tip to the base of each spear, saving the trimmings for soup if you wish. Bring a large pan of well-salted water to the boil. Cook the asparagus in the water for 2-3 minutes, cooking small amounts at a time so the water remains boiling, then lift out on to a tray lined with a teatowel. Once done, refrigerate the spears.

2. For the cheese cream, place the double cream in a pan and bring to a simmer then, making sure the cream does not boil over, simmer for 5 minutes to reduce and thicken slightly. Add the parmesan, stir to dissolve, season with salt and black pepper and set aside for now.

3. To poach the eggs: bring a small pan of salted water to the boil, cover with a lid then turn off the heat. Meanwhile, fill a deep pan with water so it is at least 6 inches deep, then add enough brown vinegar so the water tastes vinegary. Do not add salt. Break each of the eggs into a small espresso cup or a ramekin. When the water in the large pan has come to the boil, stir the water with a slotted spoon then lower the eggs into the swirling water in quick succession. Reduce the temperature of the water so the surface is barely trembling and simmer for 3-4 minutes, so the egg white is just set but the yolk is runny.

4. While waiting for the eggs, reheat the cheese cream, and arrange the asparagus on plates. Drizzle olive oil over the spears and season with sea salt and fresh ground black pepper. When the eggs have cooked, lift out at once with a slotted spoon into the plain hot water to rinse them for a few seconds then lift out on to kitchen paper to dry. Arrange an egg on each plate, season, then drizzle the cheese cream over the asparagus. Serve at once.

Chilled asparagus and creme fraiche soup

Serves 4

1.5l chicken stock

1.5kg asparagus

30g cornflour

250ml whipping cream

1 yolk from a very fresh free-range egg

1dsstsp creme fraiche, or to taste

Salt

Chervil leaves, to garnish

1. Bring the stock to the boil, covered with a lid. While waiting, cut off and discard the woody base of the asparagus spears. Cut the top 4-5cm off the spears, reserving the tips for other uses. If some of the tips are bruised or imperfect, these can be used for the soup. Cut the remaining asparagus stems into 1cm pieces. When the stock is boiling, add the asparagus and boil rapidly for 5 minutes without a lid then transfer at once to a blender and blitz thoroughly. You may need to do this in batches. As each batch has been processed, pass it immediately through a very fine sieve into a tub while you blitz the next batch. Press the soup through the sieve with the back of a ladle to extract maximum flavour and juice.

2. Combine the cornflour with a very small amount of water in a small bowl. In a larger bowl, place half of the whipping cream and the egg yolk and whisk briefly to combine. Return the sieved soup to the stove, bring to a simmer, whisk in the cornflour then cook for 1 minute.

3. Pour a third of the soup into the bowl containing the egg and cream and whisk thoroughly, then scrape it all back into the main bulk of the soup. Add the creme fraiche and dissolve. Taste for seasoning but do not allow to boil. Remove the soup from the heat as soon as the creme fraiche has dissolved. Pass once more through the fine sieve, pressing hard with the back of a ladle to ensure none is wasted, then refrigerate until cold.

4. Add the remaining cream once the soup is chilled and taste for seasoning. To serve, divide between chilled bowls and scatter over some small chervil leaves and a light drizzle of very good quality extra virgin olive oil.

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