Asparagus, like potatoes and peas, should be eaten fresh. The late Michael Wickham, photographer, inventor, polymath and enthusiastic progenitor, believed in eating his so fresh that he carried his portable stove into his kitchen garden and had a pot of water boiling in readiness as he cut it. It is pleasing that the asparagus was dispatched in water and not on a grill – a more convenient al fresco cooking medium. The British asparagus season starts next week; because of the late winter it may start with a trickle rather than a flood but it will be worth getting those stoves ready and waiting.
The very first asparagus should be eaten very, very simply. Do not peel but lower the spears into lots of well salted boiling water. Remove when just cooked, as the middle of the stalks become succulent and no longer fibrous. Serve with melted butter or a boiled egg: hold the asparagus by the stalk and dip the tip in the butter or egg and then in sea salt. Should be consumed with a napkin tucked into your collar.
2. Boiled (part two)
The very best, fattest white asparagus must be cooked until perfectly tender as they are bitter when undercooked. They should be served in a very fine folded (unstarched) linen napkin and accompanied by a hollandaise sauce: whisk together three egg yolks with half a glass of previously reduced white wine, the juice of half a lemon, some crushed peppercorns and some salt over a very gentle heat or water bath until the mixture is thick, white and airy. Whisk in 150g of melted butter in a thin stream and serve in a warmed sauceboat.
3. With pappardelle pasta
Pass the peeled, jumbo green asparagus through a Japanese mandolin to produce thin strips the same thickness as the pasta. Drop into a large pot of well salted water, add the pasta, drain when cooked and toss together in butter before serving with Parmesan.
4. Baked with Parma ham
Take a dozen very large spears of peeled white asparagus and boil until tender. Allow to cool and then wrap the bottom halves in thinly sliced Parma ham. Lay these tightly in an ovenproof dish and pour some double cream over them. Season well and bake in a hot oven until the cream is reduced. Sprinkle with fresh grated Parmesan and brown under a hot grill.
5. A feuilleté
Cut rectangles of puff pastry the size of a cigarette packet and the thickness of a £2 coin Brush with beaten egg and milk and then mark out an inner rectangle with the back of a knife half a centimetre inside the outside perimeter. Bake until golden and well risen. Cut out the inner square and remove any soft uncooked pastry from the middle. Make a beurre blanc by reducing chopped shallots with white wine and peppercorns and, when almost evaporated, beating in cubes of unsalted butter. Finish with lots of chopped chives and chervil and a little tarragon. Fill the rectangles with boiled, peeled and halved asparagus spears and coat with the butter sauce.
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