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Home-grown harvest: Asparagus

13 June 2016
Home-grown harvest: Asparagus

Seize the day and take advantage of the short season to capture the taste of this British bounty, says former Sienna chef-proprietor Russell Brown

And celebrated it is, with the long-running British Asparagus Festival in the Vale of Evesham each year and now the Great British Asparagus Feast. This is a crowdfunded campaign to put on a five-course celebration at Yurt Lush, a Mongolian yurt, near Bristol Temple Meads station. Chefs taking part are Josh Eggleton from the Michelin-starred Pony and Trap in Chew Magna, Jamie Randall from Adelina Yard in Welsh Back in Bristol, and Seldon Curry from Wallfish Bistro in Clifton.

The chefs will be assisted by students from the City of Bristol College and a drinks flight has been chosen by The Guardian drinks writer and Bristol resident Fiona Beckett. The menu will include creamed langoustines, asparagus, saffron and wild garlic from Wallfish Bistro, and blanched and chargrilled asparagus with sautéed girolles and smoked, slow-roasted organic chicken with truffle from the Pony and Trap. Canapés and petits fours will be provided by City of Bristol College.

I recently visited New Cross Fruit Farm in South Petherton, where asparagus is one of many crops grown across the year. True outdoor asparagus was just starting to make an appearance, but the crop covered by polythene cloches was in full swing. At New Cross the spears are hand-cut above ground at the optimum length, meaning that the spears are green to the base - if the spear is cut below the surface, you get the whiter, woody end.

The asparagus here is planted as one-year-old crowns, meaning that a light crop is possible in year two with full cropping in year four. Each asparagus crown will produce 28 spears in a season and will crop for 12 to 14 years. Spears can grow by as much as 10cm in a day.

The spears are washed, trimmed and graded, either on the farm or through wholesalers. The uniformity is superb - something that will be appreciated in the kitchen.

As far as use is concerned, simple is perhaps best. Asparagus steamed and served with butter or hollandaise is excellent, but it is hugely versatile and its flavour is quite robust. Cheeses such as Parmesan, Old Winchester or Comté are favourite pairings, as are all types of egg and cured ham. Contemporary London vegetarian restaurant Vanilla Black is using both raw and charred asparagus in a dish with High Cross cheese croquettes, while in Cornwall Paul Ainsworth at No 6 is steaming asparagus with seaweed and dressing it with extra virgin olive oil and Cornish sea salt. Adrian Oliver at the Old Mill in Little Petherick is serving pasta with asparagus and a wild garlic and hazelnut pesto, while Michael Wilkinson pairs the spears with a confit chicken terrine at the Star Inn the City in York.

Asparagus with slow-coooked duck egg and romesco sauce

Serves six

For the asparagus

  • 30 medium asparagus spears
  • Butter emulsion for reheating

Trim the bases of the spears if necessary and wash well. Blanch in boiling salted water until just tender. Refresh in iced water and drain as soon as the spears are cold. Store on trays lined with paper towel in the fridge until required. Alternatively, cook the asparagus to order.

For the romesco sauce

  • 100g rehydrated Nora peppers or piquillo peppers
  • 1 clove of garlic, blanched
  • 1tbs tomato purée, fried in 1tbs olive oil
  • 50g Marcona almonds, ground
  • 25g stale breadcrumbs
  • 75ml Arbequina olive oil
  • Lemon juice to taste
  • Maldon sea salt and fresh black pepper
  • 50ml light vegetable stock

Peel and deseed the peppers. Place in a blender with the garlic and the fried tomato purée and blitz to a rough purée. Add the almonds and the breadcrumbs and blitz again. Drizzle in the oil and season to taste with lemon juice, salt and pepper. Thin with the vegetable stock.

For the eggs

  • 6 duck eggs, cooked in a water bath at 62.5°C for 2 hours

For the garlic crumb

  • 1 clove of garlic, peeled and smashed
  • 50g sourdough or ciabatta, torn into small pieces
  • Olive oil for frying
  • Maldon sea salt

Warm two tablespoons of oil in a small nonstick pan, add the garlic and cook gently until it is golden brown. Discard the garlic and fry the breadcrumbs until golden. Drain the breadcrumbs on paper towel and season.

To assemble, cook or reheat the asparagus, season, toss with a little extra virgin olive oil and then arrange on the plates. Crack a duck egg and place on the asparagus and season. Dress the asparagus with the romesco sauce and sprinkle over some garlic crumb.

Buying and storage tips

  • Freshness really is key with asparagus, so buy little and often.
  • Wrap the base of the bunches in damp paper towel and refrigerate.
  • Graded spears are a good option for portion control.
  • Look out for sprue and second-grade product for soups and veloutés.
  • Stems should be rigid with tight buds.
  • Stems will snap off when bent at the end of the tougher base section.

Market report

The asparagus season officially runs from St George's Day on 23 April until Midsummer's Day on 23 June.

UK asparagus can be available as early as February, but supplies are very limited and you will pay a hefty premium - £6-£7 for a 250g bunch.

At the start of the season, expect to pay about £2.50-£3 for a 250g bunch and this will drop to £1.50 mid-season.

Expect to pay about £3-£3.60 for a 250g bunch of purple or white asparagus.

Asparagus growth is unusually dependent on temperature. An unexpected cold snap can have a huge impact on availability and price.

Charlie Hicks

www.totalproducelocal.co.uk

Asparagus and prosciutto filo parcels

Serves six

For the asparagus parcels

  • 36 medium asparagus spears
  • 12 slices of prosciutto
  • 6 sheets filo pastry, approximately 30cm x 18cm
  • 50g butter, melted
  • Oil for frying

Trim the bases of the spears if necessary and wash well. Blanch in boiling salted water until just tender. Refresh in iced water and drain as soon as the spears are cold. Trim the spears to even lengths and then arrange in bundles of three. Wrap the base of each bundle tightly in a slice of prosciutto.

Take a sheet of filo, brush with melted butter and fold in half to make a sheet measuring 30cm x 9cm. Brush again with melted butter and place a bundle of asparagus on the short edge, with the base 1cm from the edge of the pastry. Roll up to give two layers of pastry. Trim the excess length and keep for another parcel. Fold the bottom in to seal the base.

Use the remaining half of the sheet to wrap the next bundle and repeat to wrap all 12 bundles. At this stage the parcels can be placed on a silicon paper-lined tray and chilled until required. They will keep in the fridge for 24 hours.

To assemble

  • 80g mixed salad leaves
  • Salad dressing
  • 6tsp lemon and herb mayonnaise

To cook the asparagus parcels, heat a little oil in a nonstick pan and colour the pastry all over, starting with the bundle standing upright to seal the base. Transfer to a tray and bake at 180°C for four minutes.

Dress and season the salad and arrange on one side of the bowl. Place two asparagus parcels crossed in the bowl and add a spoonful of mayonnaise.

Asparagus supplied by New Cross Fruit Farm (www.newcrossfruitfarm.co.uk)

Russell Brown

Russell Brown ran the Michelin-starred, three-AA-rosette Sienna restaurant in Dorchester, Dorset, for 12 years with his wife Eléna. He launched his website and consultancy business Creative about Cuisine last year. He specialises in restaurant consultancy and photography.

www.creativeaboutcuisine.com

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