Asparagus

When I grew my own green asparagus in a long narrow border in my kitchen garden in Devon, fame arrived in the shape of a photographer from a leading weekly magazine. The only problem was the timing. Due to the lead time for magazines at that time, the special feature on my asparagus growing had to be photographed on a cold winter day in February. But there’s nothing to see, I protested. Don’t worry, we’ll fix that, said the food editor.

And so the only time that I’ve participated in a fake food story was staged with green asparagus spears from Peru attached to wooden brochette sticks and pushed into the cold bare soil in my garden.

How different the scene in my local market in the Ardèche when in May and June the asparagus harvest is at its peak. Both white and green spears are on sale from a specialist asparagus seller. He sells his produce from the back of a van parked in a corner of the market. Or, when he has a glut, he takes a stall and offers a range both white and green spears: fat, medium or slim.

Though size matters less than when the asparagus was cut. Really freshly gathered spears can be eaten raw – as I often did in my own garden – and moisture can be seen beading at the cut end.

In Britain, greengrocers sometimes stand bunches of newly-cut asparagus in shallow water to maintain the crisp freshness, a neat trick I once saw during Evesham’s asparagus festival.

White asparagus with its delicate, slightly smoky flavour retains its devotees in France but increasingly green asparagus is grown and enjoyed.

But how to cook and serve this superb vegetable that has been celebrated as a delicacy since the era of ancient Rome. The cut end of white asparagus usually requires scraping to finger-length with a potato peeled to remove the tough outer layer, green asparagus is just trimmed and left as it is.

If you serve asparagus only rarely, a shallow sauté pan works well – large enough to cook all the spears lying flat in lightly salted, boiling water – as recommended by the Swiss chef, Fredy Girardet. Trim the cut end of each spear – when young and freshly-cut just half a centimetre is necessary. Older, fatter spears may need several centimetres to be discarded due to their tough, woody texture. How easily a sharp vegetable knife cuts through each spear reveals how fresh and delicious is the asparagus – if in doubt I eat a small piece from the trimmed end. Depending on its age, asparagus usually cooks to tender but not mushy in 4-8 minutes when the flavour and texture of the vegetable is unspoiled.

On the other hand if you are a serious asparagus devotee and, during its short season of 8-10 weeks, will cook the vegetable often, it may be worth buying a tall, narrow asparagus cooker fitted with a metal basket to hold the spears upright covered by a glass lid. The cut ends of the spears stand in the simmering water and the upper portion cooks in the steam above. Again, cook until the fattest spear is tender but firm.

Then lift out the basket of cooked asparagus and drain on kitchen paper or a folded cloth then transfer the spears to a hot serving dish or individual plates.

The simplest sauce is just melted butter, either plain or with a finely chopped fresh herbs – French tarragon works well.

Or a more elaborate sauce might be called for depending on whether your asparagus is a first course or the principal dish of the meal. Lightly scrambled eggs enriched with crème fraîche or extra butter is a good combination. I usually spoon over a herb dressing too.

Smoked fish, such as salmon or trout is also an excellent partner for freshly poached asparagus. This year, I’ve been serving this quick and simple sauce that goes well with both white and green asparagus.

Freshly Poached Asparagus with Chive Cream and Smoked Trout

Serves 2-4

60 g/ 2 oz unsalted butter

1 generous tablespoon of finely chopped chives – bunch them together and use scissors to cut them into very small pieces

3 heaped tablespoons crème fraîche

60 g/ 2 oz smoked trout, snipped into small dice

500 g/ 1 lb 2 oz freshly cooked and drained asparagus

Melt the butter in a small pan remove from the heat. Stir in the chopped chives and set aside for the herb to flavour the butter.

When ready to serve the freshly-cooked asparagus, stir the cream and smoked trout into the butter and chives over low heat for 3-4 minutes until the flavours are well combined. Servethe hot asparagus with sauce in a bowl or pour over with the vegetable.