Food for Thought

3rd May 2019

It’s the feel-good veg that that’s synonymous with Spring. Lisa Botwright explores the British love for all things asparagus…

There are few vegetables so delicious that they can be served as a dish all by themselves – but take a few steamed or chargrilled asparagus spears, a drizzle of good olive oil, a squeeze of lemon, perhaps a scattering of parmesan, and you’ve got a light, but delicious Spring supper. It’s a combination of the unique taste of asparagus – which somehow manages to be both bright and earthy – and the limited duration of its growing season that makes our favourite green vegetable such a treat.

But the big bonus is that it’s so good for mind and for body. Its appearance on the shelves of our supermarkets and as a starring role on the menu of every local gastropub lifts our spirits, since its arrival coincides with the warmer weather and lighter evenings. Asparagus epitomises Spring.

But not only do the savoury spears taste good, they’re packed with nutrients vital to our wellbeing. They’re a rich source of vitamin C, which boosts our immune system; they’re anti-ageing since they’re packed full of the antioxidant vitamin E (great for skin, hair and nails) and are one of the most densest sources of folate – a mineral known to help prevent cognitive impairment. Eating asparagus, moreover, promotes healthy bacteria in the gut – a factor that improves mood, aids digestion and is linked to our ability to maintain a healthy weight. Oh, and as well as keeping us healthy, youthful, slim and energetic, research shows that they can also boost our libido.

It’s accepted that the British asparagus season is a short one of just eight weeks (from 23 April until 21 June) but it’s less well known why. Asparagus can be described as the Usain Bolt of the vegetable world because, as soon as conditions are right, it seizes its opportunity to grow and can race to full height (up to 10cm) in a single sunny day, meaning it will simply have run out of steam by mid-summer. It’s also because the number of spears a plant can produce in a season is dependent not only on this year’s weather, but on last year’s too. That’s why specialist growers have a specific cut off point for harvesting. At the end of the season they allow the plants to ‘rest’, and to grow into tiny ferns which soak up the sun. This energy is stored deep within the heart of the plant until it’s ready to draw on those reserves the following year.

Once you get your asparagus home, wash it well to remove any grit and store in a jug or glass in the fridge, with the stems submerged in water. It should always be stored in the dark.

It’s entirely up to you how you cook it: asparagus makes you feel just as good – and is just as delicious – whether it’s steamed, roasted or grilled. And if you’re after a little bit of inspiration, take a look at the recipes we’ve lined up for you below…

BRITISH ASPARAGUS AND PRAWN TACOS WITH A TOMATO SALSA

You’ll need:

200g mixed colour cherry tomatoes
2 red chillies
Small bunch of coriander, just the leaves
Zest and juice of 1 lime
1 tbsp olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 shallots
2 garlic cloves
2 knobs of butter
150g raw king prawns
250g British asparagus
4 small tortilla wraps
3 radishes, finely sliced

Serves two

What to do:

Roughly chop the tomatoes and place into a small bowl. Finely slice 1 chilli and half the coriander and add to the tomatoes with the zest and juice of 1 lime and a drizzle of olive oil. Stir well, season with salt and pepper and set aside to allow the flavours to develop.

Meanwhile, finely chop the shallots and remaining chilli and crush the 2 garlic cloves. Place a medium sized frying pan on the heat and melt the butter. Once hot, add in the shallots, garlic and chilli and fry until softened.

Add the prawns and cook until pink all over.

Once the prawns are cooked, remove from the pan and set aside. Add the asparagus into the same pan and pan fry for 3-4 minutes.

While the asparagus is cooking, heat up the wraps either in the microwave or a dry frying pan.

Once everything is ready, assemble the tacos, first with the asparagus, then the prawns and tomato salsa. Top with the remaining coriander leaves and finely sliced radishes.

ASPARAGUS SPRING PASTA

You’ll need:

400g British asparagus
170g frozen peas
350g pappardelle pasta
2 knobs of butter
1tbsp olive oil
4 echalions, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, crushed
200ml crème fraiche
Handful of chopped freshmint
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Parmesan, grated

Serves four

What to do:

Put a large pan of water on to boil for the pappardelle. While you wait, trim the ends off the asparagus and chop the spears into 2-3cm pieces. Once the water has come up to boil, blanch the asparagus and the peas for 2-3 minutes and then place in a bowl of ice-cold water.

Keep the pan of water on the hob and boil the pasta according to pack instructions.

Meanwhile, melt the butter in a frying pan, then add the olive oil, shallots and garlic and gently fry for 5 minutes until soft. Add the crème fraiche and stir to warm through, making sure it doesn’t split. Add the chopped mint, asparagus and peas to the pan and stir through along with a little of pasta water to loosen the mixture.

Once the pasta is cooked, drain well and add to the sauce. Season to your liking and then serve with a grating of parmesan, a sprinkle of more fresh mint and a drizzle of olive oil.

ROASTED ASPARAGUS WITH HAZELNUT GREMOLATA AND FETA

You’ll need:

30g hazelnuts
500g British asparagus
2tbsp olive oil
Salt and pepper
Leaves from a small bunch of parsley
Zest of 1 lemon
1 garlic clove, crushed
100g feta

Serves four

What to do:

Preheat the oven to 200 degrees C. Put the hazelnuts on a small roasting tray and place in the oven for 5-7 minutes until golden brown. Keep an eye on them to make sure they don’t burn. Once browned, set aside.

Trim off any woody ends from the asparagus and place the spears in a roasting tray. Drizzle with the olive oil and season with salt and pepper.
Roast in the oven for 5-6 minutes until crisp but still tender.

Meanwhile, coarsely chop the roasted hazelnuts and parsley and place in a bowl along with the lemon zest and crushed garlic. Slowly drizzle in 1 tbsp olive oil and stir to combine.

Once the asparagus is done, place on a plate and top with feta and gremolata, season and enjoy.

ASPARAGUS, POACHED EGG AND HOLLANDAISE ON A CRUMPET

You’ll need:

For the hollandaise sauce:
150g butter
2 egg yolks
1 dessert spoon of white wine vinegar
Juice of ½ lemon
Salt and pepper

For the crumpets:
250g British asparagus
4 large eggs
4 crumpets
Fresh chives, chopped (optional)

What to do:

To make the hollandaise, melt the butter in a small saucepan and skim off any white solids that float to the surface; leave on a low heat. In a heatproof bowl, whisk the two eggs yolks and white wine vinegar until smooth.

Bring a small pan of water to a simmer and sit the bowl containing the egg mixture over the pan to create a bain-marie. Very slowly, while continuing to whisk the egg mixture, pour the melted butter in bit by bit. Continue until you have a creamy smooth hollandaise. If the mix starts to get too hot, lift the bowl off the heat and continue to whisk. Squeeze in the juice of half a lemon and season to taste. To keep warm until ready to serve.

Bring a shallow wide pan of water to a simmer, then add the asparagus to blanch for 2-3 minutes then set aside.

Crack your 4 eggs into 4 separate ramekins. Gently lower each ramekin into the simmering water and tip the egg into the pan. Simmer for 4-5 minutes. Whilst your eggs are cooking toast your crumpets.

To assemble, divide the toasted crumpets between 4 plates. Top with the asparagus, the poached egg and a serving of warm hollandaise.

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