My first memories of asparagus aren’t exactly what you’d call momentous. The greyish, slightly cheesy tasting spears in a tin never quite lived up to the green upright stems on the label. I can still remember tasting a friend’s asparagus and soft cheese white bread canapé from her Home Economics class. I wasn’t entirely impressed. The result was kind of mushy and a little gloopy without a great deal of flavour. And yes, they really did make that in a ‘cooking’ class.
Strangely, I don’t actually remember having fresh asparagus before coming to the UK. Usually I’d be getting all patriotic at this point, and start waxing lyrical about the taste and quality of fresh fruit and veg in Australia. But there really are some foods that the UK excels at when they’re in season. Strawberries in the summer are one of my favourite things; British asparagus in season is another (and my parents always rave about apples if they’re here at the right time of the year).
The longer I’ve lived in the UK, the more I too get whipped into a green frenzy of excitement when English asparagus starts appearing in my veggie delivery box. I even tried unsuccessfully to grow asparagus; I managed to get one spindly stem after three years, so now I leave it to the experts. May is National Asparagus month in the UK, so it’s a particularly good time to celebrate with a few asparagus recipes.
Personally I think asparagus is one of those foods that it’s best not to mess around with too much. The natural sweet flavour can get a little lost if you overcomplicate things. And definitely don’t overcook it! I generally like my veggies a bit on the crunchy side, but even more so for asparagus. I happily eat it raw when it’s very fresh, by peeling it into thin ribbons.
Store asparagus in the drawer of your fridge wrapped in damp kitchen towel, or pop the stems upright in a glass of water to keep them fresh. To prepare asparagus, always start by breaking off the woody portion at the bottom of each stem. Just bend them lightly near the bottom and the correct bit will naturally snap away.
5 ways to prepare asparagus
1. Steamed or boiled
Steam asparagus in a steamer basket over boiling water for around 4 minutes, or pop into boiling water for 3-5 minutes. Timings may vary by a minute or so depending on the thickness of the stems. They should still have a little bite and not be limp and floppy.
Lemon is a good flavour partner for asparagus; all you need to dress your stems is a generous sprinkle of lemon zest with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil or generous blob of butter (and don’t forget a touch of pepper and sea salt). See more flavour suggestions below.
Create asparagus ribbons by peeling down the stem lengthways. It can be easier to lay the spears on a board, hold the head and then peel from the bottom of the stem towards yourself. Put a little pile of the curls on a plate, and dress with lemon and olive oil as for steamed asparagus.
Cover asparagus with a good drizzle of olive oil, season with some salt and pepper, and pop into a pre-heated oven at 220 degrees (200 degrees fan). Depending on the stem thickness, roast for 12-15 minutes, turning once or twice.
4. Stir fry
Cut stems diagonally into 3-4cm pieces and throw into a veggie stir fry for the final few minutes of cooking. This is a good combination with ribbons of courgette and carrot, chopped spring greens and prawns.
5. Quiche / tart
Asparagus lends itself to anything eggy, so is a good addition to a tortilla or egg-based tart. If you’re a meat eater, prosciutto and bacon also work nicely with asparagus. Cut your meat into small pieces and sauté a little before mixing into the egg tart / quiche mix.
Asparagus food and flavour partners
Egg, butter, olive oil, hard cheese (e.g. parmesan, pecorino), lemon, orange, mint, jersey royal potatoes, peas, mushrooms (particularly wild varieties), toasted almonds, prosciutto