Of all the vegetables grown in Britain, asparagus is the one I most look forward to coming into season. There is just something special about it. Woody, nutty, sweet and incredibly versatile, for the short time that it’s here, British asparagus deserves to be eaten by the bucketload.
Yes, you can pretty much buy asparagus from all over the world the year round, but why would you? British growers have a hard enough time as it is, what with our temperamental weather and supermarkets beating them down on price, so do your bit and wait for the season to start, usually from early May to late June. Trust me, you’ll savour the flavour even more.
That said, certain UK growers, such as John Chinn in the Wye Valley, have managed to extend the season a few months into July and August, producing thick-stemmed, flavoursome asparagus. Seek these out later in the summer.
I’m a big fan of steamed asparagus served with a generous bowl of hollandaise or mayonnaise but when the season gets under way you may well want to experiment a bit, especially when market stall holders and greengrocers are as good as giving the stuff away.
Fried Duck Egg with Sprue Asparagus and Brown Shrimps (above)
You often find skinny sprue asparagus in markets. It’s perfect for a brunch dish like this; teamed with shrimps and a big fat duck egg, there’s nothing better. Most good fishmongers should have brown shrimps — the little ones used for potted shrimps. If you’re stuck, feel free to melt down some shop-bought potted shrimps and use the remaining butter in this dish. It will give it an extra dimension.
250g fresh sprue or extra fine asparagus
4 duck eggs
1tbsp olive oil
50g brown shrimps or a tub of potted shrimps
A couple of good knobs of butter (if you’re not using potted shrimps)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1. Cut the woody ends from the asparagus and cut the spears in half if they are still too long. Cook them in boiling, salted water for 3–4 mins
or until tender and drain.
2. Lightly fry the eggs in the olive oil. Meanwhile, in a pan, melt the butter (or the potted shrimps if using), add the shrimps and asparagus, season and heat for a minute or so until hot. Transfer the eggs onto plates, and spoon over the hot asparagus, shrimps and butter.
Asparagus and Asian Mushroom Salad (above)
When mushrooms are out of season, I keep a stash of dried Asian mushrooms in my larder. Asian supermarkets normally have a great selection, from shiitake to cauliflower fungus and these days they’ll probably also have fresh ones.
150–200g fresh asparagus with the woody ends cut off
50g dried black fungus, soaked in water for 2–3 hours
200g Asian mushrooms, trimmed and sliced if necessary
1tbsp sesame oil
6 spring onions, trimmed and sliced on the angle
2tbsps roughly chopped coriander
2–3 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed
50g root ginger, scraped clean and finely grated
A handful of pea shoots
or a bunch
2tbsps soy sauce
1. Cook the asparagus
in boiling, salted water for 2–3 mins and drain. Then cut into oval slices on the angle. Cook the black fungus in lightly salted water for about 15 mins, then drain and cut into bite-sized chunks.
2. Heat the oil in a wok; stir-fry the spring onions, mushrooms, coriander, garlic, ginger, asparagus and pea shoots (or watercress) for a minute. Add soy sauce and 2tbsps water, simmer for 30 secs. Remove from heat. Leave to cool. Serve with pea shoots scattered on top.
Photographs by Jason Lowe