THE new asparagus season is one of life’s great culinary treats. Let Neil Forbes, chef director of Cafe St Honoré, show you how to enjoy it
It seems odd that we are quickly approaching the halfway point in the year when just a couple of months ago we were stirring stews and making dough balls to plop into our hearty casseroles. And what a great time of year it is, with wild garlic, radishes and green things in abundance. How can we not feel inspired to get cooking with the wonderful produce piled on the shelves of our farm shops, delis and farmers’ market stalls?
This month I’m celebrating the king of vegetables, asparagus. It’s always a thrill to see the first spears pushing through the ground. It’s a real shame that we rely so heavily on cheaper imports when we have such a fabulous industry here on our doorstep. I know this is something you hear a lot from me, but do try to buy local and seasonal. Not only will it taste better, but also the sense of anticipation whilst you wait on the first of the season’s crops makes cooking a lot more exciting.
Hugely versatile, asparagus goes well with eggs, tastes great in tarts and quiches, makes delicious soups and bathed in warm, melted butter, is simply divine.
My recipes this week are easy to follow and simple to make. To start I’m charring asparagus and serving it with soft-boiled eggs, watercress and celery salt. Next up is grey mullet with radishes, heritage potatoes and more of those green spears. Lightly-grilled fish with a squeeze of lemon and a pinch of salt is one of life’s simple luxuries and often overlooked. And I’m finishing with a gooseberry fool. I do love a gooseberry, especially as they are one of the first fruits of the year. They traditionally made their first appearance at Whitsun baked in a pie, but I’m using mine in a rich, yet light fool with the addition of one of spring’s mos fragrant crops, the elderflower. Hope you enjoy.
12 spears asparagus (3 per person)
1 bunch British watercress
4 free-range eggs
1 tbsp celery salt
a squirt cold-pressed rapeseed oil
4 grey mullet fillets, skin on,
pin-boned and scaled
8 or so heritage potatoes, gently scrubbed
1 handful halved fresh radishes (I prefer the French Breakfast variety)
8 to 12 spears asparagus
50ml cold-pressed rapeseed oil
lemon juice to taste
a knob of butter
sea salt and black pepper
a few fresh herbs, curly parsley or chives
250g gooseberries, topped, tailed and washed
125g unrefined caster sugar
a dash of elderflower cordial
500ml double cream
a few heads of elderflower
squeeze of lemon juice
BRITISH ASPARAGUS, SOFT-BOILED EGG, WATERCRESS AND CELERY SALT
Charring, or barbecuing, this lovely veg lends it a delightful smoky flavour. My top tip is to rub your spears with a very small amount of cold-pressed rapeseed oil and salt before placing them on the grill. If you can find them, and feel like splashing out, gull’s eggs are rich, complex and truly wonderful. But they are pricey, so a good free-range hen or duck egg will do just fine. A soft-boiled egg seasoned with celery salt is one of my favourite things to eat. With asparagus thrown in, I’m in heaven.
1 Place a griddle pan on the hob and take it to a high heat.
2 Remove the woody ends of the asparagus stalks. If they are rather thick, cut them in half lengthways. Season with celery salt, black pepper and a rub of rapeseed oil.
3 Add them to the hot griddle and cook for 7 to 8 minutes, turning them every minute or so.
4 Meanwhile, soft boil the eggs by placing them in a pan of boiling water for 5 minutes. Remove them immediately and place in cold water until just cool. Set aside.
5 To serve, make a bed of watercress on each plate and arrange the asparagus spears on top. Then place the whole eggs on top of that before cutting them in half. Finish with a sprinkle of celery salt (I like quite a lot) and a twist of pepper. Great served with a good sourdough loaf.
GREY MULLET, HERITAGE POTATOES, RADISHES AND ASPARAGUS
This is a brilliantly easy dish. If grey mullet isn’t for you, then salmon or sea trout will work a treat. I use tatties from Carroll’s Heritage Potatoes, as they go to huge efforts to keep these wonderful old varieties going. Choose Pink Fir Apples or Sharpe’s Express and keep the skin on.
1 Gently scrub the potatoes, leaving the skin on, then cook in salted water on a low simmer until just soft (about 30 minutes). Drain and allow them to cool slightly before slicing.
2 Next, remove the woody ends of the asparagus and drop into boiling salted water for 1 to 2 minutes, depending on their thickness. Refresh in cold water.
3 Gently heat half the oil in a frying pan on the hob. Fry the fish, skin-side down, for about 4 to 6 minutes until golden brown. Remove from the pan and keep warm.
4 Add a knob of butter to the same frying pan and add the asparagus, potatoes and radishes. Season with salt, pepper, a little lemon juice and a few chopped herbs.
5 Divide this mix among 4 warmed plates, placing the fish on top. Add a final season of salt, lemon juice and the rest of the oil, then serve.
GOOSEBERRY AND ELDERFLOWER FOOL
If you can whip cream, you can make this. It’s a good one to try on fussy kids and great for entertaining as it can be served straight from the fridge. You could also add some crushed meringues and turn it into a gooseberry Eton mess.
1 Place the topped and tailed gooseberries in a pot and add about 100ml of water. Then add the sugar and bring to a simmer. Cook for about half an hour, stirring occasionally.
2 When the fruit is soft, remove from the heat and add a few heads of elderflower. Allow this mix to cool in the fridge.
3 Meanwhile, whip the cream until it forms soft peaks – don’t over-whip it. Then add a dash of elderflower cordial and a squeeze of lemon juice before carefully incorporating the chilled gooseberries.
4 To serve, spoon into individual glasses or a large bowl. Sprinkle on some elderflowers and serve chilled.