‘I feel a thrill at the thought of those bright, fresh, vibrant green stalks’, writes Tom Kitchin
THOSE who follow my column will have heard me talk quite fanatically about the arrival of spring asparagus. Every year at this time, without fail, I can’t help but feel a little thrill at the thought of the arrival of those bright, fresh, vibrant green stalks. The season for asparagus in this country is very short – only about six weeks – so I always make the most of it, preparing it in many different ways and marrying it with other seasonal delights.
If you’re buying asparagus, thinner and thicker stalks are equally good, but they need different preparation. You simply need to wash the thinner stalks, as they are tender enough from tip to end. You might need to break off the tougher end of thicker stalks. Or you may want to peel the tough skin off the bottom so you reveal the glorious, tender flesh.
There is so much you can do with asparagus that I really recommend you try experimenting. The first recipe here, served with scallops, is a real joy because, while it’s a bit more “cheffy” and uses a number of different techniques, it’s well worth the effort. The recipe calls for asparagus served three ways – raw, roasted and puréed, but the fragrant flavours on the plate as a result are absolutely sensational and just shout of spring for me. An asparagus risotto recipe follows.
The secret of tasty asparagus is to keep cooking to a minimum. That way, you can really taste and enjoy the wonderful, natural, earthy flavours. I always use all of the asparagus – the season when it’s at its best is so short, I would never think to waste any of this glorious vegetable. I even keep the tough parts for throwing in soups or sauces, so make sure you keep them aside.
Asparagus is very labour intensive to grow. One of my suppliers, Sandy Pattullo from Eassie Farm, is one of those hard-working producers who allow us access to some of the very best asparagus in the world. For me, that’s more than enough inspiration to get our hands on as much of this wonderful green gift during the short, six-week asparagus season as we can.
ASPARAGUS SERVED WITH PEARL BARLEY RISOTTO
300g pearl barley – soak in cold water for 1 hour before cooking
half an onion roughly chopped
100ml white wine
100g Parmesan cheese
2 knobs of butter
400ml chicken stock
4 rashers of bacon – cooked until crispy
300g asparagus, and eight spears to serve
150ml chicken stock
half an onion, peeled and thinly sliced
For the risotto
Heat a heavy-bottomed pan and add oil and a knob of butter. Sweat the onion gently for 1-2 minutes before adding the pearl barley. Sweat gently and season with salt. Add the white wine and reduce until dry. Cover with most of the chicken stock, holding a little back, and cook out for 17 minutes. As the risotto reduces, slowly add the last of the chicken stock and the Parmesan. Once cooked, remove from the heat and gently stir in the asparagus purée (see below) and a knob of butter. Taste and serve with two cooked asparagus spears per portion and crispy bacon.
For the asparagus purée
Finely chop the asparagus. Heat a heavy-bottomed pan over a medium-low heat and add a drizzle of olive oil. Add the onion and sweat gently for 2-3 minutes. Increase the heat, add the chopped asparagus with some seasoning and sweat for 1-2 minutes. Pour on the chicken stock and simmer for 3-4 minutes until the asparagus is cooked. Tip into a blender and blitz to a smooth purée. Transfer to a bowl and cool quickly over a bowl of iced water, unless serving straight away.
SCALLOPS WITH ROASTED, PURÉED & RAW ASPARAGUS
2 bunches of asparagus, about 900g in total
olive oil for cooking
half an onion, peeled and thinly sliced
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
150ml chicken stock
6-8 large scallops in shells, cleaned
Heat the oven to 180C/Gas Mark 4. To prepare the asparagus, snap off the woody ends and peel the lower end of the stalks. Divide the asparagus into three equal portions: set aside a third for serving raw, a third for roasting and a third for the purée.
For the purée, finely chop the asparagus. Heat a heavy-based pan over a medium-low heat and add a drizzle of olive oil. Add the onion and sweat gently for 2-3 minutes. Increase the heat, add the chopped asparagus with some seasoning and sweat for 1-2 minutes. Pour on the chicken stock and simmer for 3-4 minutes until the asparagus is cooked. Tip into a blender and blitz to a smooth purée. Transfer to a bowl and cool quickly over a bowl of iced water to preserve the colour, unless serving straight away.
For the roasted asparagus, heat a non-stick ovenproof frying pan over a medium-heat and add a good drizzle of olive oil. Add the asparagus and sauté for 1-2 minutes. Transfer the pan to the oven and roast for 3-4 minutes until the asparagus is tender.
Meanwhile, thinly slice the raw asparagus spears lengthways and drizzle with olive oil. Once the roast asparagus is ready, transfer it to a warm place and set aside.
To open scallops, hold with the flatter side uppermost and insert a strong small knife in between the shells close to the hinge. Twist the knife to break the hinge and open up the shells. Cut through the white muscle to release the scallop meat.
Halve each scallop horizontally into two discs. Return the frying pan to a high heat and add a good drizzle of olive oil. When hot, place the scallops in the pan, season with salt and pepper and sear them quickly for 45 seconds to 1 minute on each side until golden brown, depending on size. (It is better to leave them slightly underdone than to overcook them, which toughens the flesh.) In the meantime, gently reheat the asparagus purée.
Spoon the asparagus purée on to warm plates and arrange the roasted asparagus and scallops on top. Finish with the raw asparagus and serve at once.