The British asparagus season is in full swing, but hurry – there’s just six weeks left until it’s off the shelves.
Keeley Bolger unearths TV chef Marcus Bean’s top tips for making the most of this special vegetable.
Like love, a perfectly brewed cup of tea and the next series of Downton Abbey, some things in life are worth the wait. And they include British asparagus.
With a season spanning roughly eight weeks a year and ending in late June, British asparagus is a flighty friend.
So flighty that you may be flummoxed as to what to do with these lean, green shoots. But before you resign yourself to another helping of fail-safe broccoli, TV chef Marcus Bean has plenty of top ‘tips’.
“I love asparagus. The possibilities are endless,” he says. “It’s just about knowing a few recipes to make the most of it.”
Self-taught cook Bean rose to prominence in 2010 when he won Channel 4’s culinary competition Iron Chef UK. Today, he’s a regular on ITV daytime programme This Morning and often serves up dishes to hosts Holly Willoughby and Phillip Schofield – including a recent asparagus and rocket salad.
Bean has teamed up with the British Asparagus campaign in a bid to encourage more of us to enjoy the home-grown delicacy, and has handed over some of his favourite recipes celebrating the humble spears.
But with the clock ticking, he’s eager for everybody to snap up a bunch while we can.
“It’s such a long process to cultivate our asparagus but when it’s right, it’s just so good and so healthy that it’s a shame not to eat it,” says Bean, who lives in Shropshire with his wife Jenny and two asparagus-loving daughters.
Bean says: “To get your kids to eat asparagus, try chopping it into little pieces and sauteing it with other veg. My kids love having them as soldiers with dippy eggs instead of toast.”
While the fruits of the British asparagus growers’ labour may only be around for a limited period, Bean thinks that it’s a pity for us to turn to cheaper imports.
“There’s such a massive difference in quality between the Peruvian asparagus you can get all year round here and the British asparagus that you can only get for a short time,” he says.
“Asparagus is one thing we do really well as a country. Someone sent me a message the other day saying that they went to the supermarket and British asparagus was right next to the Peruvian asparagus, only the Peruvian one was priced a lot cheaper.
“We don’t want to get to a point where people buy foreign asparagus which is of a lesser quality but cheaper. That means that the farmers will be priced out of the market and won’t grow it over here, which is a real shame.”
For Bean, who often crops up to do cookery demos at the BBC Good Food roadshows around the country, the beauty in asparagus lies in its versatility.
“My favourite way of cooking it is to have it chargrilled,” says Bean. “Blanch it in some boiling water for about 30 seconds to one minute max, pop it out and put it in some ice water to keep the colour. Then just chargrill it in the pan.
“Or you can just bang it on the barbecue. Give it a quick brush with some oil first then stick it on. Be careful not to overcook it otherwise you lose that lovely green colour. Or you could have it blanched or steamed. Or with butter and wild garlic. It’s making me hungry thinking about it!”
If your stomach is also calling, try these three recipes that Bean has written for British Asparagus.
ASPARAGUS, PANCETTA AND PARMESAN LINGUINE WITH CHIVE CREAM
1tsp olive oil
8 asparagus spears
50g thick cut pancetta (diced)
50ml double cream
50ml vegetable stock
2tbsp grated Parmesan
2tbsp chopped chives
Salt and pepper
Start by cooking the pasta in a pan of slightly salted boiling water until cooked, but still slightly al dente. Drain and drizzle with a little olive oil.
Put a medium-sized frying pan on the heat and add a drizzle of oil. Finely slice six asparagus spears, with the other two spears cut into four pieces. Put them all in the pan and saute on a medium heat. Now add the diced pancetta and cook for 3-4 minutes. Add the cream, vegetable stock and Parmesan. Then add the cooked pasta and chives, cook on a medium heat for 2-3 minutes. If the sauce gets a little thick, add a touch of water.
Once cooked, serve with a grating of fresh Parmesan and a little seasoning.
ASPARAGUS AND SHALLOT SOUP
12 asparagus spears
1tsp olive oil
50g unsalted butter
4 medium British shallots, diced
1 clove of garlic crushed
800ml vegetable stock
200g fresh watercress
Salt and pepper
1tbsp freshly chopped chives
4tbsp creme fraiche
Prepare the asparagus by removing as little as possible at the base of the stems. Chop the tips off four of the asparagus spears and set them aside for garnishing the soup. Finely chop the rest of the spears.
Place a saucepan on the heat, add the olive oil and butter, then the diced shallots and garlic. Sweat for five minutes on a low heat.
Add the chopped asparagus and continue to sweat for another couple of minutes. Then add the vegetable stock, bring to the boil and simmer for 8-10 minutes.
Add your watercress to the soup and simmer for two minutes then remove from the heat, put into a blender and blitz in batches. The watercress always goes in last to make sure it retains that lovely green colour.
Once the soup’s blended, put it through a sieve to remove any lumps. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
To serve, pour your soup into the bowl and place a spoonful of the creme fraiche on top. Sprinkle over your chopped chives and place the asparagus tips on top of the creme fraiche.
ASPARAGUS, GOATS’ CHEESE AND SMOKED BACON QUICHE
For the pastry:
(Optional; alternatively buy a block of shortcrust pastry)
250g plain flour
125g unsalted butter (room temp)
For the filling:
2 rashers of thick smoked back bacon (finely chopped)
6 asparagus spears
100g goats’ cheese
300ml double cream
4 medium eggs
Salt and pepper
2tbsp grated Parmesan
1 loose-bottomed tart case (20cm diameter by 3-4cm deep or a 35cm x 12cm fluted flan tin)
Start by making the pastry: sift your flour into a large bowl, then rub in the butter with your fingertips until it resembles breadcrumbs. Mix the egg, then add to the flour and bring together with your hands. Add the water and knead on a cold floured surface until fully mixed. Wrap in cling film and chill for 30 minutes in the fridge.
Next, remove your pastry from the fridge and roll out on a floured work surface until it’s an even thickness of about ½-1cm.
Grease your tart case with butter then line it with your pastry, making sure you press it down into the edges of the tart case all the way round (use a 2cm ball of pastry to do this to stop from piercing the pastry).
Prick all over the pastry base with a fork, to release trapped air and stop the pastry from rising.
Now line the pastry case with parchment paper and fill it with baking beans or rice. Then place onto a baking tray and bake for 15-20 minutes at 190c. Once you’ve done that, remove the beans and the paper from the case, brush the pastry with a little milk or egg wash, then pop back in the oven at 180c for 10 more minutes until golden. Remove from oven and set aside.
For the filling, melt the butter in a pan and add the diced bacon, fry until golden brown and cooked, then set aside. Now get your asparagus spears, trim off the hard root, cut them lengthways then add to a hot griddle pan with a little oil and cook until charred.
Spoon the bacon mixture into the cooked pastry case, add the asparagus and crumble the goats’ cheese on top. Make your mix up by adding the cream and milk to a jug, adding the eggs and then whisking together. Add a little salt and pepper to season.
Then pour the mix into the pastry case – don’t worry if you have some mix left over. Sprinkle the top with the grated Parmesan and bake the tart in the oven at 180c for about 20-30 minutes until the filling is golden and the mix has set.
:: For more asparagus recipes visit www.british-asparagus.co.uk
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