Asparagus

Asparagus

By
Skye Gyngell
Contains
7 recipes
Published by
Quadrille Publishing
ISBN
9781844006212
Photographer
Jason Lowe

I am always eager for the first box of English asparagus to arrive. The season traditionally straddles May and early June, and lasts just six weeks in total, but it can vary a little. Young asparagus spears are the tender shoots of a much larger plant, which if left alone will grow over a metre tall, with fern-like fronds and brilliant vermillion-coloured berries. As the spears start poking their fine heads above the ground in early spring, they are generally harvested when bright green and no more than 20–25cm high.

White asparagus is, in fact, the same plant, whose shoots have been banked by earth as they grow, keeping the spears underground and preventing them from turning green. In this way, the asparagus is blanched and the spears grow plump, smooth and white except for their tips, which are tinged violet.

Asparagus is generally graded by size and sold in bunches. Size varies from stalks that are no thicker than fine pencils to ones that are as large and fat as Havana cigars.

Like most vegetables, asparagus starts to lose its sweetness as soon as it is picked from the ground, so it is important to choose the freshest possible specimens. Spears should be firm, smooth and brightly coloured with a vibrant bloom to the stem. Look for heads that are tightly formed and compact. All too often asparagus is picked after it has bolted. If this is the case, the buds will have begun to open and spread apart and the tiny branches under the heads will have opened up. Avoid asparagus like this, as it will usually be tougher and possibly taste a little bitter. Also check that the cut ends are not dry and white, indicating that they have not been freshly cut.

Use asparagus as soon as possible after buying. If you need to store it briefly, treat it like cut flowers – stand the spears upright in a jar of water and place in the fridge.

To prepare asparagus for cooking, grasp each spear between both hands and snap it. It will break at the woody end – just above where the stalk will be tender. You can save the woody ends for flavouring soup. I like to peel the lower part of the stalks if they are anything other than very slender. The skin on larger asparagus, in particular, tends to be tougher and slightly fibrous. Asparagus is easy to peel using a swivel vegetable peeler; it takes seconds and is well worth the effort.

To boil asparagus, simply plunge into well-salted boiling water and cook until just tender when pierced with a knife. Cooking time will depend largely on the size and thickness of the spears, but as a general rule of thumb, it should take about 11/2 minutes, and no longer than 3 minutes. When cooked, asparagus should take on an intense green colour. White asparagus, which is much thicker, can take up to 8 minutes to cook through. Once cooked, serve at once or cool quickly, by draining and spreading the spears out on a board, so that they retain their lovely, appealing colour. Asparagus is also delicious simply brushed with oil, seasoned and grilled over a barbecue or grill; it takes no longer than a few minutes.

We don’t grow asparagus in our vegetable garden, mainly because it takes up a lot of space to produce a small harvest – almost a metre per plant. Also, grown from seed it takes 4–5 years to produce the first spears – a real test of patience. Nevertheless, we buy English green and French white asparagus in season, using both varieties in as many ways as we possibly can, firstly because they are delicious, and secondly because they signal so loudly the arrival of spring.

Now I associate asparagus with gentle warmth and dappled skies, but one of my abiding childhood memories is of eating tinned asparagus on sweltering Christmas days in Australia. It was always cold from the fridge and so soggy that it would disintegrate in the mouth, yet strangely I enjoyed the flavour at the time ...

Recipes in this Chapter

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