Not this week, but maybe next, you may have just a little frisson of hesitation as you pick up a bunch of asparagus, because the excitement of seeing the first bunches in the shops has passed and the enjoyment of simply boiled or steamed asparagus with olive oil or butter has started to wane. That’s when you need to arm yourself with a bunch of new ideas for asparagus.
If asparagus is really fresh – taut and snappy and still a little juicy – it is gorgeous raw. Soak briefly to ensure it is free of grit but not long enough to leach its Vitamin C, shake and pat dry. Slice thinly. It’s not much fun to eat a bowl of raw thumb-sized chunks of asparagus – you would be chewing a lifetime. Instead, slice very thinly on the diagonal. If you are not confident with a knife, peel into slivers with a vegetable peeler. Dress with hazelnut oil and lemon juice, salt and pepper and serve a spoonful with roast chicken, or a delicately cooked chicken breast, or steamed or pan-fried fish. I know you are meant to resist picking the first little tufty sprouts of tarragon leaves as they pop out of the ground in late spring (yep, if you have a tarragon plant, it will die off in autumn and pop up again in late spring or early summer, so watch for it), but, a few tiny sprigs added to the mix of asparagus, hazelnut oil and lemon is magic. True, if you buy a bottle of hazelnut oil you will need to find uses for the rest of the oil in the bottle. It’s superb on a goat’s cheese salad with a raspberry vinaigrette, and fabulous drizzled over vegetable pasta dishes – think baby zucchini and zucchini flowers on pasta, or, forget the pasta and drizzle over zucchini flowers stuffed with ricotta and mint with toasted pine nuts – or used in salads with oranges, pears, persimmons, nashi, that sort of thing. It is intensely nutty, with a hint of sweetness and is often mixed with another oil so its presence doesn’t overpower other ingredients. It can also be used in baking.
I wasn’t really meaning to go off on a hazelnut oil tangent … but just to conclude, like all oils, it is sensitive to light, so store it in a pantry, and use it up! No point hiding it at the back of the pantry and finding it has lost its charm when you finally dig it out three years later.
Sometimes you see bunches of pencil-thin asparagus, and other days, big chumpy spears, and your not sure which is best. Rest assured the skinny jobs are males, and the nice plump ones are female! Ahhwww, nature is so predictable. Be that as it may, skinny asparagus are the ones to choose when you want to make a frittata, or a quiche or tart. Thick pieces of asparagus, especially if they still have a little crunch, will cause a frittata or pie to split when you cut it. Choose skinny asparagus, and cook them until they are bite-tender. Swirl through beaten seasoned eggs (salt, pepper, nutmeg) and grated parmesan, and drop into hot sizzling oil and butter in a frying pan, letting them curl around the pan. They will become ‘one’, a cohesive mixture, which will look good and slice easily.
Those big fat spears? They are the ones for dunking into a vinaigrette (or messy eggs!), or for roasting or barbecuing. The thick end is good to hold on to if using asparagus as a dipper – in fact they make great fingerfood, though you may not always be able to chew them down to the end, so provide a dish for the stumps.
How to deal with leftover asparagus? If it is nicely tender, stir it through a risotto in the last few minutes to heat it through, or fry it off in sizzling butter with morning eggs. Asparagus need never be boring.