Having obtained your super fresh asparagus, cooking is quick and easy. Banish any thoughts that you might need a special asparagus steamer. Steaming is an acceptable method of cooking asparagus and although I don’t own one, I am reliably informed that 5-6 minutes in a microwave works perfectly. I work on a general principle that vegetables retain more flavour if cooked without liquid so I prefer roasting, which helps concentrate the natural sweetness. It will take between 5 and 7 minutes, depending on the thickness of the stems.
First prepare the asparagus by snapping the stems at the point where the woody base ends. Hopefully this will be quite near the bottom – try bending the stem and the snapping point should reveal itself quite easily.
Lay the asparagus on a baking tray and drizzle with oil. Season with salt and pepper. Now place in a hot oven (200˚C in a fan oven) and cook for 5 minutes. Test by inserting the point of a knife. A degree of crispness is good, but give it a couple more minutes if you think it needs it.
A really good aged balsamic vinegar enhances the flavour perfectly, but don’t bother if what you have isn’t thick and syrupy. In other recipes I might substitute an aged cider vinegar, but the truth is we just don’t age it for long enough to work in this recipe.
Where we can substitute a British ingredient is with the cheese. Instead of parmesan, whose salty, umami flavour will underline the sweetness of the asparagus, use any cheese that has aged sufficiently to develop crystals of calcium. Last year I had a two-year old Montgomery’s Cheddar, which shaved over the local asparagus, was as good an example of the excellence of British food as you will ever encounter. An 18-month old Cheddar will be easier to find and probably just as good.
If you have a griddle plate or pan, this is alternative way of cooking asparagus without liquid. Allow the pan to get really hot before adding the asparagus, which should be turned in olive oil first. It will take about 8-10 minutes to cook. Griddle some bread at the same time and serve as above, or with goats cheese.
Another dish that demonstrates how simple cooking can be when you have first rate ingredients is to dunk cooked asparagus into a lightly boiled or coddled egg – preferably a duck egg, slightly richer than hens eggs and thankfully still seasonal.
All of the asparagus in a bundle will normally be of the same size to ensure even cooking, but my final recipe makes use of the bundles of “mis-shapes” that are sold more cheaply as well as the woody stems removed in the previous recipes.
50g/2 oz butter
1 small potato, peeled and diced
1¼ pints chicken stock
1 bundle (about 300g) of asparagus sprue or mis-shapes
Salt and pepper
50 ml/2 fl oz double cream
Bring the chicken stock up to simmering point and add the woody trimmings from the asparagus. Simmer for 10 minutes before straining to remove the stems.
Melt the butter in a large pan and add the chopped shallot and diced potato. Season with salt and pepper, put a lid on the pan and sweat gently for about 10 minutes. The shallot should be softened but not coloured. Add 1 pint of the strained chicken/asparagus stock and simmer, without the lid, for 10 minutes by which time the potato should be thoroughly cooked.
Meanwhile cut the asparagus stems into lengths of approximately 3cm. Reserve the tips and add the rest to the soup. After about 5 minutes they should be really tender but still a bright green colour. Purée the whole lot and then pass through a sieve or mouli.
Return the soup to the pan and reheat. The reserved asparagus tips will take only a minute or two to cook so this can be done either in the remaining chicken stock or as you reheat the soup. Add the cream, check the seasoning and add the remaining stock as required.
*This soup can be served cold in which case the shallots should be cooked in oil rather than butter.
See British Asparagus article