Black Dog Cafe, Tunbridge Wells, Kent

The British love affair with asparagus

May is an exciting month in the kitchen – seasonal delights such Jersey royal potatoes, watercress, crab and the month’s crowning glory, asparagus come into season.

When planning our specials we always lock in a whole variety of asparagus recipes for May & June and due to their incredible popularity, spend a lot of time running across the road to the local greengrocer for extra supplies to keep us going through lunch service.

So what is our love affair with asparagus all about?

My husband doesn’t understand how a vegetable can cause such elation but asparagus really are something special among vegetables.  The arrival marks a change in the year, these early-season treats are a certain sign that spring is with us. The first asparagus of the year is a keenly anticipated pleasure, a harbinger of warmth, of light, of summer being around the corner (we hope!)

Because the season is short at around 6 weeks, you want to eat as much of it as possible, it therefore encourages the seasonal cook to enjoy it in as many different ways as possible. Its universality is superb – working brilliantly in so many simple and fresh dishes from breakfast through to dinner.

As a country we don’t export any of it, we keep it all for ourselves – that shows how good it really is! It’s practically a patriotic duty to indulge in this most delicious of vegetables.

My all-time favourite way with asparagus is chargrilled. Whether on the BBQ or under the kitchen grill, I love the smoky flavour and great bite. It’s so easy — just a bit of butter and a sprinkle of salt and it’s perfect. But so long as the shoots are not overcooked, I love them almost any other way — with hollandaise, or in salads with crisp lettuce, shallots and capers, or with avocado and bacon, or in a quiche or frittata, or wrapped in cured ham, drizzled with olive oil and grilled.

Whether you’re an asparagus pro or a bit nervy on what to do with this gorgeous vegetable,  here’s a few Black Dog tips on cooking and storing to make sure you’re getting the best from the best;

  • Check for freshness. Check out the colour — the freshest asparagus is a really vibrant green. The heads are also important — make sure they are nice and tight. And look for a clean ’snap’ when breaking the root, which proves just how fresh it is.
  • Boiling & Steaming. Whether boiling or steaming, it is a good idea to tie the asparagus in bundles of 10-12 spears for cooking, so they can be quickly removed from the water all at once. To boil: submerge in a large pan of boiling water, cover and cook for 3-6 minutes.To steam: stand the asparagus in 3 inches of boiling water, cover and cook for 3-6 minutes.
  • Roasting, Chargrilling & Barbecueing. Roasting and chargrilling produce an intense smoky flavour quite distinct from boiling or steaming. To roast: pre-heat the oven (220°C, gas mark 7), place asparagus on baking sheet and drizzle over a little olive oil. Roast for approximately 10 minutes, turning a few times depending on the thickness of the spears. Stems should be soft, not limp, tips should be slightly crunchy.To chargrill: toss the spears in a little olive oil and place in a ridged grill pan over a high heat. Grill the spears for 3-6 minutes turning once or twice. To barbecue: set the grill on a medium height above the coals – you don’t want the asparagus to cook too quickly and become black. Place the spears directly on the grill and cook until lightly coloured. If desired, toss in a light vinaigrette while still warm.
  • Stir Frying & Sautéing. Choose fine, young asparagus for stir frying and sautéing. If your asparagus is thicker, you may want to plunge it into boiling water for a couple of minutes and then into cold water to partially cook before stir frying or sautéing. To stir fry: heat a little sunflower oil in a wok or deep frying pan until smoking hot, add the asparagus and stir fry for 3-6 minutes. Finish with soy sauce, sweet chilli sauce or your favourite oriental condiment. To sauté: heat a non-stick frying pan over a gentle heat and add a knob of butter. When it starts to foam, add the asparagus and toss in the butter for 3-6 minutes.
  • Salad. Select the youngest, finest spears available, chop roughly and use in your favourite salad. If desired, blanch very briefly in boiling water and refresh before use as described above. A delicious combination is asparagus, fresh peas, feta cheese and lemon dressing.
  • Storing. If you plan to keep your asparagus for a few days, keep it fresh by placing in a jug or vase with the stems in water, then store in the fridge.

Whatever you do with it – just enjoy it!

 British asparagus

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