The joys of asparagus season
Easy and timeless ways to get the best out of your asparagus crop.
Words: Jenny Garing
It’s difficult to say just what makes asparagus so special. But maybe its the vegetable’s short season that has made it so popular over the last 5,000 years. The young shoot of a strange plant called Asparagus officinalis, asparagus first appeared in ancient Egypt, where it was considered sacred and used in religious ceremonies. Since then, it has been coveted by multiple cultures across the world, ancient Rome in particular. Emperor Caesar Augustus was said to have enjoyed the vegetable so much he kept a dedicated military unit on standby to seek it out.
When Gaius Octavius, the first Roman emperor, wanted something done fast, he reportedly commanded to his subjects to undertake something “velocius quam asparagi conquantur” – quicker than boiling asparagus.
Whatever the appeal, asparagus remains a wonderful summer vegetable today. While boiling is the most common way to prepare asparagus, the problem is that the tougher stalks require more cooking than the delicate tip of the spear. I am lucky enough to have inherited my mother’s special asparagus pot. It is a circular, tall and narrow pot with a basket that fits neatly inside. The spears sit upright in the basket, with just enough water in the pot to be boiling the base of the stalks but only steaming the tips, so they cook evenly. When done, you just lift out the basket of perfectly cooked asparagus. Alternatively, steaming your asparagus instead of boiling it preserves the delicate flavour and colour.
Removing the woody base of asparagus spears is a big bone of contention. You can use a knife and slice off the woody end of the base, or you can let it snap wherever it wants to when you bend it, as this should be where the woodiness stops. Whichever way you prefer, don’t throw out those woody bases. They are great in a stock.
Asparagus loves lemon, vinegar, olive oil, butter, miso, soya sauce, ginger, sesame seeds, eggs (in any form), hollandaise sauce and parmesan. So once your asparagus is steamed to perfection, dress it with:
• lemon and olive oil
• soya sauce and sesame seeds
• lots of butter with chilli flakes
• lollandaise or mayo
• grated ginger, lime juice and oil
• sushi vinegar and miso
• olive oil, capers and parmesan.
Eggs are such a classic pairing with asparagus. One of the most common dishes is steamed asparagus served with hollandaise and poached eggs. Another is asparagus mimosa – grated hard-boiled eggs mixed with dijon mustard, and maybe capers, served over the top of steamed spears. You can make a scafata of asparagus, broccoli, spinach and broad beans poached in olive oil and then top with a poached egg, shaved parmesan and serve with crusty bread.
It is also a colourful and healthy addition to tarts and pizzas and adds depth to risottos and pasta. The classic pasta primavera (spring greens) focuses on the asparagus along with baby peas and other greens.
Steamed asparagus can also be turned into a vibrant dip. If you’re not into a good old Kiwi asparagus roll (boiled asparagus spears rolled in white bread and butter) then put them in the middle of a sushi roll, or in a Vietnamese fresh summer roll.
For something different, try asparagus spears crumbed in panko with a bit of parmesan, then fried or baked. Serve with a dipping sauce or aioli like you would chips. Or go one step further and make asparagus tempura or asparagus spears in beer batter.
There are so many recipes for asparagus soup that are great for using up the over-ripe spears that are starting to droop or those with frayed tips – a sign that they are getting past their best. You can also chop these up and add to stir-fries.
As with most of my vegetables, I prefer to grill, roast or barbecue them as opposed to boiling, as it can draw out all the good nutrients into the water. Sautéed or barbequed asparagus spears keep their vibrant green colour as well as the nutrients, and still have a little crunch. Once cooked this way, top them with a drizzle of olive oil and some chopped nuts or dukkah, or slather them in a harissa butter. Wrap the individual hot spears in cool prosciutto for a taste and texture bomb, or cut them up and add them to a warm noodle salad, or a hot smoked salmon and avocado salad.
The cooked asparagus (steamed, bbq or grilled) can be chopped and added to all kinds of salads. They go well in a lentil and parmesan salad, or mixed with cooked broccoli, green beans and almonds. Try them with a coleslaw or mixed with broad beans, snow peas and cucumber with a fresh mint dressing.
And don’t forget to try raw asparagus in salads. Use a potato peeler to get thin strips from the spears. They are delicious dressed with just lemon juice and olive oil and mixed with some crispy fried prosciutto or small bits of bacon. Or add them to some rocket or watercress with some chopped pistachios. Go all seasonal with raw thin slices of courgette and asparagus along with fresh herbs, and maybe with a few slices of crisp tart apple thrown in.
If you still have asparagus left after all this, you can pickle them to keep for dishes in other seasons.
Here are two simple recipes that highlight asparagus as a side dish.
Italian Warm Asparagus in Marinade
Prep time: 5 minutes
Sitting time: 1 ½ hours
A traditional Italian recipe for serving wild asparagus, it is simple but hard to beat.
You could substitute basil for the mint if you like.
½ red onion, minced
½ tsp salt
2 tsp capers, rinsed and chopped
10 mint leaves, roughly chopped
1 tsp lemon juice
500g asparagus, thin spears are best
Place the onion and salt in a flat serving bowl. Mix well and let steep for 30 minutes. Add the capers, lemon juice, mint and marinate for at least one hour. Mix thoroughly from time to time. Meanwhile, cook the asparagus in boiling water for about three minutes, until they are tender but still crisp, and then drain. Add the still warm asparagus to the marinade and add salt and pepper to taste. Toss gently and serve.
Japanese-style Raw Asparagus Salad
Raw asparagus has double the gut-friendly prebiotics than cooked. You could use whatever other summer vegetables you have on hand for this salad. To fill it out a little you could also add seared fresh tuna chunks with toasted sesame seeds. Or add boiled edamame beans and avocado slices.
Cook time: 10 minutes
200 grams asparagus
a small handful of mangetout, approx 50 grams, stringed and halved
A handful of rocket leaves
2 tbsp of good quality egg mayonnaise
1 tsp soy sauce
2 tsp sesame oil
½ tsp miso
finely grated zest and juice of ½ lemon
Cut the tips off the asparagus and set them aside. Using a vegetable peeler, peel ribbons from all the stems. Peel the zucchini into thin ribbons as well. Arrange the asparagus tips and ribbons on a plate
with the remaining vegetables, all tossed lightly together.
Combine all the dressing ingredients together in a small bowl, then drizzle over the salad and serve.
This recipe contains a lot of strong spices that only enhance the asparagus. Another option is to add prawns or chicken to make it more of a main meal.