Asparagus, the alluring star of the Spring table, has such a distinct and joyful taste it deserves to be devoured throughout the all-too-brief season. Sweet and slightly sulphurous, with a flavour that’s the essence of green, the elegant spears require no fancifying to enjoy them at their very best.
The very first grass-like pickings are known as sprue and were once regarded by gourmets as the last word in asparagus perfection.And although it’s true that the first pickings of any harvest can taste more vital and exciting than those that follow, asparagus is delicious whether youthful and lanky or cigarillo fat. (White asparagus is essentially the same as green but covered in soil to block the production of chlorophyll and – in the opinion of some – flavour).
Whatever its shape, asparagus is perfection when freshly picked, as the quality declines sharply once picked. Droopy bundles that have travelled far or lingered on the shelf too long can taste bitter and dull, so opt for firm spears when you can. To prep, simply trim the woody ends or snap them off at their natural breaking point. If the base is very fat and woody, remove the outer layer with a vegetable peeler. Don’t throw away the discards! Add them to soups or vegetable stocks: broths made green with asparagus peel and trimmings are perfect for making verdant risotto prima Vera.
The very thinnest spears are tender and sweet and require little by way of heat. Tumble them into a salad raw – with freshly podded peas if you can, and other greens – or go for cooking methods that are short and sharp. Stir-fried with other vegetables or sautéed briefly and added to scrambled eggs or omelettes, it’s an absolute treat.
Asparagus and salty dairy make the perfect couple: blanch, steam or griddle the spears until just tender, and then drown them in melted butter – of the browned variety whenever possible. (To brown the butter simply melt and cook on until the milk solids caramelise and turn the whole shebang chestnut brown; the nutty flavour will echo the inherent nuttiness of the asparagus. Shavings of umami-rich Parmesan or Pecorino are also heavenly; or drape slices of salty Prosciutto over the spears and serve with boiled new potatoes and soft boiled eggs.
The flavour of asparagus is outgoing, so pair with ingredients that also make their presence felt. Chopped fresh mint leaves, lemon juice and tarragon are a treat. Crab meat on good toast topped with just-tender steamed spears is special too.
Asparagus boasts nutty notes so magnify this by pairing with nuts. Creamy pine nuts, toasted, are wonderful on buttered asparagus. Or toss lightly cooked spears with a pesto made with fresh herbs – a cocktail of parsley, mint and basil is lovely – Parmesan, pine nuts, lemon zest and lots of good olive oil. Match the nutty earthy notes of asparagus with mushrooms – morels if you can lay your hands on some – in a creamy dish. Or again, sautéed mushrooms and asparagus on toast is hard to beat.
Asparagus is heavenly in partnership with hollandaise sauce, that sublime buttery eggy sauce that I love to make perfumed with tarragon vinegar. Top the spears with a softy poached egg and a splotch of the sauce and there is no better late breakfast. Asparagus is a Spring treat not to be missed.
Perfect asparagus pairings:salty cheese, melted butter (ideally browned), lemon juice, soft herbs (tarragon, mint and basil), white fish, new potatoes, eggs, mayonnaise.
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