Top of the tips

LIKE MANY other vegetables, asparagus is available year-round in supermarkets — so many people are surprised to hear that asparagus actually has a season. Irish asparagus, for example, is only in season for five to six weeks, in May and early June.

Fresh asparagus is a revelation for most people. It’s so delicious it needs little adornment and should be enjoyed at every opportunity during its short season. The best place to find it would be at your local farmer’s’ market or a good vegetable shop.

Sometimes you can get the thin spears called sprew. These delicious little wisps are perfect for salads, risotto or for dipping into a freshly boiled free-range egg.

The plumper spears, meanwhile, can be quickly cooked and served simply with a silky hollandaise sauce.

You can get a special tall asparagus pot with an internal basket which keeps the spears upright as they cook. This way, the ends are cooked while the tender tips are steamed. However, an oval cast-iron pot or even an ordinary saucepan will do the trick just as well — the spears fit neatly in an oval pot.

The most important thing is to cook the asparagus as quickly as possible after it’s cut — if you grow your own you can pluck it and rush to the kitchen with it. Otherwise, buy it as fresh as you possibly can. The tips should be tightly closed. If they are beginning to open, the asparagus is already past its best.

To prepare, hold a spear close to its end between your thumb and index finger. Bend the spear over your finger. The woody end of the asparagus will snap at the point where the stalk is beginning to get tough — you can use the trimmings for stock or soup. Some cooks like to peel the stalk but I think this results in a loss of flavour and shouldn’t be necessary if the asparagus is fresh and tender.

You can grow your own in a raised bed and if you are an asparagus lover its certainly worth considering — you could look forward to several little feasts. Asparagus is a beautiful plant for the garden and if you can spare some of the feathery foliage, it is wonderful for flower arrangements.

Asparagus does well in sandy soil, so coastal gardeners and farmers should think about growing it.

If you are lucky enough to get your hands on some, here are a few recipes to enjoy.

Asparagus Soup with Chervil

If you grow your own asparagus, you might be able to spare some to make soup.

Serves 6

50g (2oz) butter

110g (4oz) onion, chopped

560g (1¼lb) asparagus, chopped

Freshly ground pepper

850ml (1½ pints) homemade chicken stock

150-300ml (¼-½ pint) creamy milk

Garnish

1-2 tsp chervil

A few asparagus tips saved from the soup

Peel the root ends of the asparagus with a swivel-top peeler, chop the spears into 1cm (½ inch) pieces. Keep some of the tips for garnish. Melt the butter in a heavy bottomed saucepan, when it f foams add onions and toss until well coated, sprinkle with salt and freshly ground pepper. Cover with a butter wrapper and tight fitting lid, sweat over a gentle heat for 10 minutes. Add the asparagus and stock, boil uncovered until soft — approx 8-10 minutes Liquidise, add creamy milk to taste and correct seasoning. Stir in the chopped chervil just before serving. Cook the asparagus tips in boiling salted water for 8-10 minutes, drain. Add to the soup as a garnish.

Crisp, tiny croutons, approx 5mm (¼ inch), would be a delicious accompaniment.

Asparagus on Toast with Hollandaise Sauce

This is a simple and gorgeous way to serve fresh Irish asparagus during its short season. We feast on it in every possible way for those precious weeks — roasted, chargrilled, in soups, frittatas and quiches. And for sheer, simple luxury, dip some freshly cooked spears in a soft boiled egg.

This was my father-in-law’s favourite way to eat fresh Irish asparagus.

Serves 4

16-20 spears fresh green asparagus

Hollandaise sauce (see recipe below)

4 slices of good white yeast bread

Butter

Garnish:

Sprigs of chervil

Hold each spear of asparagus over your index finger down near the root end and bend — it will snap at the point where it begins to get tough. Some people like to peel the asparagus but we rarely do.

Cook in about 2.5cm (1 inch) of boiling salted water in an oval cast-iron casserole. Cook for 4 or 8 minutes or until a knife tip will pierce the root end easily.

Meanwhile, make the toast, spread with butter and remove crusts.

Place a piece of toast on a hot plate, put the asparagus on top and spoon a little hollandaise sauce over.

Garnish with a sprig of chervil and serve immediately.

Hollandaise Sauce

Hollandaise is the mother of all the warm emulsion sauces. The version we use here is easy to make and quite delicious with fish.

Like mayonnaise, it takes less than 5 minutes to make and transforms any fish into a feast.

Once the sauce is made, it must be kept warm: the temperature should not go above 70-80C/180F or it will curdle. A thermos flask can provide a simple solution on a small scale, otherwise put the hollandaise sauce into a delph or plastic bowl in a saucepan of hot but not simmering water.

Hollandaise sauce cannot be reheated very successfully so it’s best to make just the quantity you need. If, however, you have a little left over, use it to enrich other sauces or mashed potato.

Serves 4-6, depending on what it is accompanying.

2 egg yolks, preferably free-range and organic

125g/4oz butter, cut into dice

1 dessertspoon cold water

1 teaspoon freshly squeezed lemon juice, approx

Put the egg yolks in a heavy stainless saucepan on a low heat, or in a bowl over hot water. Add water and whisk thoroughly. Add the butter bit by bit, whisking all the time. As soon as one piece melts, add the next.

The mixture will gradually thicken, but if it shows signs of becoming too thick or slightly scrambling, remove from the heat immediately and add a little cold water if necessary.

Do not leave the pan or stop whisking until the sauce is made.

Finally, add the lemon juice to taste. If the sauce is slow to thicken, it may be because you are excessively cautious and the heat is too low. Increase the heat slightly and continue to whisk until the sauce thickens to coating consistency.

It is important to remember that if you are making hollandaise sauce in a saucepan directly over the heat, it should be possible to put your hand on the side of the saucepan at any stage. If the saucepan feels too hot for your hand, it is also too hot for the sauce.

Another good tip if you are making hollandaise sauce is to keep a bowl of cold water close by so you can plunge the bottom of the saucepan into it if becomes too hot.

Keep the sauce warm until service, either in a Pyrex bowl over hot but not simmering water (do not have gas jet on). A thermos flask is also a good option.

Risotto with Broad Beans, Peas, Green Asparagus and Sugar Snaps

Serves 8

225g (½ lb) broad beans

225g (½ lb) peas

115g (¼ lb) sugar snaps

6 stalks of green asparagus

40g (1½ oz) butter

110g (4oz) onions chopped

400g (14oz) Carnaroli, Vilano, Nano or Arboria rice

1.7-2L (3-3½ pints) homemade chicken stock

80ml (3 fl oz) white wine

25g (1oz) freshly grated Parmesan, Parmigiano Reggiano

Salt and freshly ground pepper

Bring 600ml (1 pint) water to the boil, add salt, the broad beans and cook for 2 or 3 minutes or until almost tender, drain and refresh in cold water. Slip the beans out of their shells.

Meanwhile cook the sugar snaps again in boiling salted water until al dente, then cook the asparagus for just 4 or 5 minutes and finally the peas for 3 or 4 minutes. Do this while cooking the risotto if you can keep your eye on several pots at the same time.

To start the risotto, bring the chicken stock to the boil at the back of the cooker and keep at a low simmer.

Melt 25g (1oz) of butter in a saucepan, add the finely chopped onion and cook over a medium heat until soft but not coloured, add the rice and a generous pinch of salt.

Stir the rice over the heat for 2-3 minutes or until it turns translucent, then increase the heat and add the dry white wine.

When the wine has evaporated, add a couple of ladles full of stock, stir and reduce the heat to medium, keep stirring and as soon as the liquid has been almost absorbed, add another ladle full and so on, stirring all the time.

After about 10 minutes, add the beans, peas, sugar snaps and continue to ladle in more stock as it absorbs.

After about 5 minutes, taste the rice, it should be just cooked, stir in the remainder of the butter, freshly grated Parmesan and the asparagus sliced into 1¼ inch pieces at an angle.

Add a little more stock if necessary, the risotto should be soft and loose.

Taste and correct the seasoning.

Serve immediately in hot bowls with more Parmesan to sprinkle over the top.

Asparagus and Mint Frittata

Serves 6

8 eggs, preferably free-range

225g (8oz) thin asparagus

Salt and freshly ground pepper

55g (2oz) Parmesan, Parmigano Reggiano, freshly grated or 25g (1oz) Parmesan and 25g (1oz) Gruyere

2-3 tbsp chopped mint leaves

2 tbsp olive oil

Non stick frying pan — 7½ inch (19cm) bottom, 9 inch (23cm) top rim

Bring about 1 inch of water to the boil in an oval casserole.

Trim the tough ends of the asparagus, add salt to the water and blanch the spears until just tender for 3 or 4 minutes.

Drain.

Slice the end of the spears evenly at an angle, keep 1½ inches at the top intact. Save for later.

Whisk the eggs together into a bowl. Add the sliced asparagus, most of the grated Parmesan and chopped mint leaves, reserving a little for the end.

Season well with salt and freshly ground pepper.

Heat the oil in the pan, add egg mixture, reduce the heat.

Continue to cook over a gentle heat until just set — about 12 minutes.

Arrange the asparagus over the top. Sprinkle with the remaining mint and Parmesan.

Pop under a grill for a few minutes but make sure it is at least 5 inches from the element. It should be set but not brown.

Serve immediately, cut into wedges and follow with a green salad.

Hot Tip

Congratulations to Jacques restaurant: This much loved Cork venue was named the best restaurant in Munster by its peers at the Restaurant Association of Ireland awards in Mayo. Jacques is now in its 28th year and is still run with passion by Jacque and Eithne Barry, along with their team Eileen Carey and John Kelly. Jacques also won the 2008 Georgina Campbell award for best natural food in Ireland in recognition of the restaurant’s commitment to using only local food, showcasing all that is best in Cork. Jacques, Phoenix Street, Cork. Tel 021-4277387.

Burren Slow Food Festival: May 23-25, Lisdoonvarna, Co Clare. Slow Food lunches and dinners, talks, markets, food exhibitions, supper theatre and much, much more. Contact Birgitta Hedin-Curtin on 087-822 4173, email info@burrensmokehouse.ie or slowfoodclare@hotmail.com.

Third annual StarChefs.com International Chefs’ Congress: A Kitchen without Boundaries, September 14-16, New York City. See www.starchefs.com.


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