A Wonderful Bouquet of Asparagus

I’ve just got a present of a wonderful bouquet, more precious than orchids – a bunch of fresh organic Irish asparagus. The season is short, just 5 or 6 weeks – May into early June, depending on the vagaries of the weather. Most of the cookery students were astonished to hear that asparagus had a season, like most other vegetables its available in the supermarkets from January to December.

Irish grown asparagus in season is quite another thing, sometimes you can get the thin spears called sprew, delicious little wisps, perfect for salads, risotto or for dipping into a freshly boiled egg instead of soldiers of toast.
The plumper spears can be quickly cooked and served unadorned with a little silky Hollandaise.

Serious gourmands and country house kitchens will have a special tall asparagus pot with internal basket to keep the precious spears upright while they cook. That way the ends are cooked while the tender tips are steamed. Ideal, but not essential. An oval cast-iron pot or even an ordinary saucepan will do the trick, oval is good because it fits the spears more neatly.

Freshness is of paramount importance – like corn, the most sublime and unforgettable asparagus is that which is rushed from the asparagus bed in the garden, into the pot. For that reason it is truly worth considering making a little raised bed in your garden so you can indulge in even five or six asparagus feasts each year. That’s the ultimate, but for the rest of us it’s a question of buying the asparagus as fresh as possible. Keep an eye out for tightly closed tips, if they are beginning to open the asparagus will be past its best.

Preparation is simple, hold an asparagus spear close to the end in your hand between your thumb and index finger. Bend the spear over your finger, the woody end of the asparagus will snap at the point where the stalk is beginning to get tough, use the trimmings for stock or soup. Some cooks like to peel the stalk with a potato peeler but I feel that results in a loss of flavour, cook and eat as soon as possible.

Roast Asparagus with Sea Salt and Parmesan

Roast asparagus as in the previous recipe. 

Sprinkle a little freshly grated Parmesan cheese, preferably Parmigiano Reggiano, and sea salt over the roast asparagus and eat immediately. Completely exquisite!

Tagliatelle with Cream and Asparagus

Wickedly rich but utterly delicious once a year!
Serves 4 as a main course

8 ozs (225 g) fresh Irish asparagus
8 ozs (225 g) tagliatelle, preferably fresh and homemade
4 pints (2.3L) water
2 large tablespoons salt
1 oz (30 g) butter
6 ozs (170 g) best quality cream
2 ozs (55 g) freshly grated Parmesan cheese, preferably Parmigiano Reggiano
Freshly ground pepper, nutmeg and sea salt

Snap off the root end of the asparagus where it breaks naturally; cook the asparagus in boiling salted water until al dente, drain and save.

Bring the water to a good rolling boil, add the salt and drop in the tagliatelle; cover the pot for just a few seconds until the water comes back to the boil. Cook the tagliatelle until barely al dente (remember it will cook a little more in the pan). Homemade tagliatelle will take only 1-2 minutes whereas bought pasta will take considerably longer – 10-12 minutes depending on the brand.

Cut the asparagus into thin slices at an angle (no thicker than ¼ inch/5mm). Melt the butter in a wide saucepan, add half the cream and simmer for a couple of minutes just until the cream thickens slightly; then add the asparagus, the hot drained tagliatelle, the rest of the cream and the cheese. Season with freshly ground pepper, nutmeg and sea salt. Toss briefly – just enough to coat the pasta, taste and add a little more seasoning if necessary. Serve immediately.


Asparagus and Spring Onion Tart

Serves 6
Shortcrust Pastry
4 ozs (110 g) white flour
2 ozs (55 g) butter
1 egg, preferably free-range

Filling
5 ozs (140 g) asparagus, trimmed and with ends peeled
½ oz (15 g) butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
9 ozs (255 g) onion, finely chopped (we use about half spring onion complete with green tops and half ordinary onion)
4 ozs (110 g) Irish Cheddar cheese, grated
3 eggs, preferably free-range
4 fl ozs (120 ml) cream
Salt and freshly ground pepper

1 x 7 inch (18 cm) quiche tin or 1 x 7 (18 cm) flan ring

First make the shortcrust pastry. Sieve the flour into a bowl and rub in the butter until the mixture resembles coarse breadcrumbs. Mix in the egg to bind the pastry. Add a little water if necessary, but don’t make the pastry too sticky. Chill for 15 minutes. Then roll out the pastry to line the quiche tin or flan ring to a thickness of 1/8 inch (3mm) approx. Line with greaseproof paper and fill to the top with dried beans and bake blind for approximately 20 minutes in a moderate oven, 180C/350F/Gas 4. Remove the beans, egg wash the base and return to the oven for 1-2 minutes. This seals the pastry and helps to avoid a ‘soggy bottom’.

Next make the filling. Melt the butter, add the olive oil and onions; sweat the onions with a good pinch of salt until soft but not coloured. 

Cook the asparagus in boiling salted water until al dente, then drain. When it is cool enough to handle, cut into ½ inch (1 cm) pieces. 

Whisk the eggs in a bowl; add the cream, almost all the cheese, onion and the cooked asparagus. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper. Pour into the pastry case, sprinkle the remainder of the cheese on top and bake in a moderate oven 180C/350F/Gas 4, for 40-45 minutes.

Asparagus and Mint Frittata

Serves 6
8 eggs, preferably free-range 
225g (8oz) thin asparagus
Salt and freshly ground pepper
55g (2oz) Parmesan, Parmigano Reggiano, freshly grated or
25g (1oz) Parmesan and 25g (1oz) Gruyere
2-3 tablespoons chopped mint leaves
2 tablespoons olive oil

non stick frying pan - 7½ inch (19cm) bottom, 9 inch (23cm) top rim 

Bring about 1 inch of water to the boil in an oval casserole. Trim the tough ends of the asparagus, add salt to the water and blanch the spears until just tender for 3 or 4 minutes. Drain. Slice the end of the spears evenly at an angle keep 1½ inches at the top intact. Save for later.

Whisk the eggs together into a bowl. Add the sliced asparagus, most of the grated Parmesan and chopped mint leaves, reserving a little for the end. Season well with salt and freshly ground pepper. 

Heat the oil in the pan, add egg mixture, reduce the heat. Continue to cook over a gentle heat until just set - about 12 minutes. Arrange the asparagus over the top. Sprinkle with the remaining mint and Parmesan. Pop under a grill for a few minutes but make sure it is at least 5 inches from the element. It should be set but not brown. Serve immediately , cut into wedges and follow with a green salad.

Bread Pudding with Asparagus and Fontina

Mary Risley from Tante Marie's Cooking school in San Francisco shared this delicious recipe with us.
Serves 8

12-16 thick slices of best quality white bread
600ml (1 pint) milk or 425ml (15 fl oz) + 140ml (5 fl oz) buttermilk
560g (1lb) asparagus
4 eggs, preferably free range and organic
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
28g (¾oz) freshly grated Parmesan cheese, Parmigiano Reggiano
225 g (8oz) Fontina cheese, Swiss cheese or other white cheese, roughly grated
15g (2oz) butter

Lasagne dish: 10 x 8 inches in diameter

Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/regulo 4.

First butter the bread and then whisk the eggs with the milk. Trim the asparagus spears. Bring a little water to the boil in a heavy oval casserole, add salt. Add asparagus and cook for 3-4 minutes or until al dente. Drain and refresh under cold water. Cut in thin diagonal slivers. 

Pour a little of the egg and milk mixture into the base of a buttered lasagne dish. Arrange a layer of bread on top. Sprinkle half the asparagus over the bread. Season well with salt and freshly ground pepper. Strew one third of each of the cheeses on top. Pour some of the egg mixture on this layer then repeat the layers and seasoning and finish with a layer of bread. Pour the remainder of the liquid evenly over the top. Sprinkle with the remaining cheese. Bake in a bain-marie in the preheated oven for about 45 minutes or until crisp and golden on top. Serve with a good green salad.

Asparagus on Toast with Hollandaise Sauce

This is a simple and gorgeous way to serve fresh Irish asparagus during its short season, it
was my father-in-law's favourite way to eat Irish asparagus during its short season.
Serves 4

16-20 spears fresh green asparagus
Hollandaise sauce, (see recipe)
4 slices of homemade white yeast bread
butter
Garnish
sprigs of chervil

Hold each spear of asparagus over your index finger down near the root end, it will snap at the point where it begins to get tough. Some people like to peel the asparagus but we rarely do. Cook in about 2.5cm (1inch) of boiling salted water in an oval cast iron casserole. Cook for 4 or 8 minutes or until a knife tip will pierce the root end easily. Meanwhile make the toast, spread with butter and remove crusts. Place a piece of toast on a hot plate, put the asparagus on top and spoon a little Hollandaise sauce over. Garnish with a sprig of chervil and serve immediately.

Asparagus Bundles with Sauce Hollandaise
This is a rather fancy way to serve asparagus. you could dispense with the ties and just serve them with the sauce if you like
Serves 4

1½-2 lbs (560-900g) fresh asparagus
1 leek or some chives
Sauce Hollandaise 
Garnish
chervil

Wash the leek (if using) and cut in half lengthways. Blanch and refresh under cold water. Drain on kitchen paper. Peel and trim the root end of the asparagus. Cut into uniform lengths and save the trimmings for soup. 

Make the sauce and keep warm. Just before serving, cook the asparagus in boiling salted water. If you have a special asparagus pot, that's wonderful, but you can manage very well without it. Depending on the thickness of the spears it may take from 8-12 minutes to cook. Test by putting the tip of a sharp knife through the thicker end. Remove from the water and drain. Tie the asparagus into bundles of 3 or 5 with the strips of leek. Put a generous tablespoonful of Sauce Hollandaise on each warm plate and place the asparagus bundle on top. Garnish with chervil and serve immediately.

Sauce Hollandaise

Serves 4-6, depending on what it is to be served with.
2 egg yolks, free-range
4 ozs (110g) butter
1 dessertsp. cold water
1 teasp. lemon juice approx.

Serve with poached fish, eggs and vegetables

Put the egg yolks into a heavy stainless steel saucepan on a low heat, or in a bowl over hot water. Add the water and whisk thoroughly. Add the butter bit by bit, whisking all the time. As soon as one piece melts, add the next piece. The mixture will gradually thicken, but if it shows signs of becoming too thick or slightly 'scrambling' remove from the heat immediately and add a little cold water if necessary. Do not leave the pan or stop whisking until the sauce is made. Finally add the lemon juice to taste. If the sauce is slow to thicken it may be because you are excessively cautious and the heat is too low. Increase the heat slightly and continue to whisk until the sauce thickens to coating consistency.

It is important to remember that if you are making Hollandaise Sauce in a saucepan directly over the heat, it should be possible to put your hand on the side of the saucepan at any stage. If the saucepan feels too hot for your hand it is also too hot for the sauce.

Another good tip if you are making Hollandaise Sauce for the first time is to keep a bowl of cold water close by so you can plunge the bottom of the saucepan into it if it becomes too hot.

Keep the sauce warm until service either in a bowl over hot but not boiling water, or in a thermos flask. Hollandaise Sauce should not be reheated. Leftover sauce may be used as an enrichment for cream sauces, or mashed potatoes, or to perk up a fish pie etc.
Foolproof Food

Roast Asparagus with Sea Salt

This rather bizarre way of cooking asparagus comes to us from California. Roast asparagus may sound unlikely, but its flavour is wonderfully intense and particularly good served as part of a plate, which includes chargrilled red and yellow peppers, aubergine slices, chargrilled onions and courgettes with marjoram.
Serves 4

1 bunch of fresh Irish asparagus
1 tablespoon approx extra virgin olive oil
Sea salt (Maldon if possible)

Trim the asparagus and peel the root ends with a swivel top peeler. Drizzle the spears with a little olive oil. Toss gently to coat, season with sea salt, put onto a roasting tin and roast in a hot oven, 230C/450F/Gas 8, for 8-10 minutes.

Serve with crusty bread.


Hot Tips

Look out for fresh new season’s asparagus at your local Farmers’ Market –
Check out www.irelandmarkets.com  – this site will give you details of the farmers’ market nearest to you, also lists country markets in the area. Anyone setting up new markets should also contact the site for a wealth of advice and information.

Visit the seven new Artist Workshops at Stephen Pearce Gallery in Shanagarry, East Cork. This is a unique facility designed to support individual or small groups of artists in developing their art and craft which will be available for sale in the workshops – paintings, furnishings, textiles, jewellery, spices, pottery …..The project has been part funded by East Cork Area Development under the rural development scheme.

Great Taste Awards
Last week Bord Bia hosted a Speciality Food Forum for 150 leading buyers from UK, Ireland and Continental Europe with a combined purchasing power of almost €8 billion. To coincide with the event the UK Guild of Fine Food Retailers brought the Irish element of the Great Taste Awards to Ireland for the first time. Congratulations to Myrtle Allen who was presented with the inaugural Lifetime Achievement Award by the Taste Council for her pioneering work in promoting Irish food and cooking.