Quick and easy vegetarian meals using asparagus

Valerie O’Connor comes upon a forgotten clump of native asparagus and is prompted to make it the centre of a quick and easy, vegetarian meal.

Why look at the menu when you can eat better at home? Have you ever been served a meal that was so bad, so bland and disappointing that you actually wanted to cry?

There are worse things in life than being served awful food, but when it happens over and over simply because you’ve requested that you don’t want any animals in it, well, it gets a bit predictable and dull.

The world over, chefs are being acclaimed for their use of vegetables, Michelin starred places in France, home of the cassoulet and choucroute that have many types of meat altogether in them, even they can do it. Irish chefs can do it, but they are few and far between.

At this point I must reiterate that I am currently off animal products as part of a programme to heal from a long-term autoimmune condition. 

I looove meat, I always have done and I have gone to great lengths to get good meat from small producers, buying good lamb out of the boot of a car in a supermarket car park.

I’ve written extensively on raw milk and organic meat. I will go back to well-reared, home schooled poultry and beef when the time is right for me, if I want to, when the time comes.

Meanwhile though, I still love to go out for dinner just like I always did. 

Limerick is well served by day-time veggie joints, Indian food and the best sushi place in town TaiKiChi, even does vegan sushi.

But at night, it’s another story and if you go into a pub to eat it’s a bowl of soup and a plate of chips. 

So vegan jokes aside, what happens if a meat eater goes out on a social occasion, something pre-planned as they often are and sometimes you just don’t want to eat meat?

Most bars and restaurants in the casual dining sector feature an array of meat and fish-based starters and maybe a bit of deep fried cheese... still. 

There’s sometimes a veggie spring roll, also deep fried.

Main courses, if there is anything, are mushroom risotto or....I can’t think of anything else. In an Italian in Ballina there were zero non-animal things on the menu, not an arabbiata in sight or even a spaghetti with garlic, chili and olive oil.

An Indian meal in Nenagh was so awful that I even went on tripadvisor and rated it as the ‘worst meal ever’, and Indian food is usually a safe spot for veg lovers. 

So back to my question, what happens when you, the omnivore who must want a break from meat sometimes, can’t order anything plant based?

Aren’t we supposed to be eating our greens and having kale smoothies coming out of our Lululemons? Isn’t the HSE always banging on about us eating more veg, five a day or more - doesn’t Operation Transformation even suggest meat-free days?

Meat is hard on your digestion, it’s yummy yes, but it takes energy to digest and makes you sleepy, so eating a slab of steak on a night out when you plan on dancing, isn’t the best for your energy. 

Veg based dinners fill you up and never leave you feeling bloated or horrible.

Ideally of course, they would all be made with organic and non GMO produce, but that’s another rant. Come on chefs, the stuff is there for the taking and the cooking, give diners some choice - and without the goats cheese tart.

Meanwhile, having a wander in a garden where some asparagus plants had years before been abandoned, we found a gorgeous clump of juicy green spears standing straight and proud. 

Snapping off a stalk and eating it straight out of the ground was a taste sensation of freshness too exciting for words.

I had made some pearl barley and tomato risotto the night before and whipped the left-overs into some little patties and fried them in olive oil. 

Serving them on top of some freshly picked salad leaves, they made a bed for the spears which I griddled lightly with a little olive oil and sea salt. 

The tomato and barley risotto is from Ottolenghi, he who does great things with veg, pulses and grains, all of my now favourite foods. 

The original recipe uses butter and is served with feta so I’ve adapted it here. It makes loads so you can eat it for dinner one day and use to make patties the next.

Pearl Barley and Tomato Risotto

Ingredients

  • 200g organic pearl barley, I usually soak this for an hour first then strain
  • 90ml olive oil
  • 2 small celery stalks, diced
  • 2 small shallots or 1 medium onion, diced
  • 4 garlic cloves, diced
  • 4 thyme sprigs
  • 1/2 tsp smoked paprika
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 4 strips of lemon rind
  • 1/4 tsp chili flakes
  • 400g tin chopped tomatoes
  • 700ml vegetable stock
  • 300ml passata

Method

Heat the oil in a heavy-bottomed pot and slowly cook the shallots with the celery and garlic for about ten minutes.

Add the strained barley, lemon rind, thyme, bay leaf, chili and paprika and give it a good stir.

Pour on the stock and tomatoes and stir it all and simmer gently for about 40 minutes.

Give it stir every now and then to make sure it doesn’t stick.

If you eat cheese this is great with feta marinated in some toasted caraway seeds and olive oil.

Otherwise a squeeze of lemon juice and some olive oil and lots of fresh parsley is delicious too.

Rice Patties with Asparagus Spears

I made this up for myself to have with the found asparagus, it’s pretty heavenly.

You will need whatever leftover risotto you have, this works with any kind of risotto by the way.

Flour for dusting, I use chickpea as it has a good flavour and protein too. 

  • Sea salt 
  • Smoked paprika 
  • Fresh asparagus, 4-5 spears per person 
  • Lemon Salad leaves

Method

Mix the flour and seasonings on a plate and put a large frying pan on to heat up.

Pour on some olive oil for shallow frying.

Get enough risotto in your hand that makes a small patty and place it on the floury plate, whip it over to coat the other side, dusting all around.

Fry in the hot oil, turning over carefully after a few minutes, they can be delicate.

Meanwhile heat up a griddle pan nice and hot for the asparagus, fresh Irish asparagus tastes amazing if you can get your hands on it.

Coat it in a little olive oil and place it on the hot pan, turning after a couple of minutes, it will cook quickly and you don’t want it soft.

Sprinkle on a little salt and squeeze over some fresh lemon.

Get some washed salad leaves and put a little pile on the plate, with two cakes on top.

Lay the spears on top of these and drizzle over some good balsamic and a drizzle of more olive oil with a dash of pepper and sea salt.

A cold glass of white wine would be great with this, happy summer dining and no fatty frying pans to scrub later.


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