Divine asparagus

Fresh raw green Asparagus on wooden chopping board.

In Britain, where I live, asparagus is a god among vegetables. It is greeted with real reverence in spring as if nothing worth eating has been available for months. With a deep sigh of relief at the end of a long winter of roots, cabbages and more roots, we finally spot those fresh green shoots, and everybody is happy. This may come across as hyperbole, but after more than 20 years living in Britain, I am afraid I have finally caught the bug.

The short season — not much longer than eight weeks — and the notion that this delicacy is something “we” do really well, give asparagus special status here. Yes, tomatoes grow in Britain, but they’ll never be as good as Italian ones, and we all know it. British Brassicas and root vegetables are also excellent, but they are staples for most of the year, breeding a sense of familiarity that often sounds a bit like contempt.

Real delicacy

So now I, too, get giddy when the first bundles of local asparagus appear at my local greengrocer in April. I, too, grab them with both hands and throw them into a pot as fast as I can. I, too, start lecturing anyone who will listen about the splendour of our local hero.

Perhaps because of this esteem, I tread lightly when cooking asparagus. It also makes sense, since asparagus is so delicate that it can easily be overwhelmed by neighbouring ingredients in a dish. I don’t understand the point of mixing asparagus in a salad with lots of other vegetables, where its marvellous yet subtle flavour is lost in a cacophony.

To celebrate its distinctiveness, I tend to pair asparagus with the classics: eggs, butter, olive oil, cheese, cream, onions, garlic, potatoes. Texture comes from fried breadcrumbs or nuts, which leave the right amount of space for the taste of asparagus. For flavour, acidity is a must. Sometimes tomatoes work, but citrus and vinegar are always my first choice. Recently, I have been using lots of capers because they bring with them both the acidity and the umami notes that benefit asparagus so much.

I also feature it in relatively simple recipes, like roasted asparagus with almonds and capers. This dish offers amazing value in the kitchen. With about 20 minutes and hardly any work, you can put on the table a dish that I would happily serve for a fancy dinner party or in any of my restaurants. If I want to spend a bit more time and bulk up the dish, I serve a similarly flavoured asparagus — this time getting my umami kick from anchovies rather than capers — with mashed potatoes. Cooking the potatoes with mint and lemon is my way of infusing them with delicate background notes that asparagus loves to play with. They are definitely there, but not so loud as to overwhelm.

Roasted Asparagus With Buttered Almonds, Capers and Dill

Ingredients:

  • 1 1/3 pounds of asparagus, woody ends trimmed
  • 3 tbsps of olive oil
  • Salt and black pepper
  • 2 tbsps of unsalted butter
  • Scant ¼ cup sliced almonds
  • 3 tbps of baby capers
  • ¼ to ½ cup of roughly chopped fresh dill

Method

  1. Heat oven to 425°C. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
  2. In a large bowl or on a work surface, toss the asparagus with 1 tbsp of oil, a generous pinch of salt and a good grind of pepper. Arrange the asparagus in the paper-lined pan, and roast until the asparagus is soft and starting to brown in places, 8 to 12 minutes. Remove from oven and set aside in the pan.
  3. In a small or medium saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat until foamy. Add almonds and fry, stirring frequently, until golden brown, 1 to 2 minutes. Pour almonds and butter evenly over asparagus.
  4. Add remaining 2 tbsps of oil to the pan and heat over high heat. Once hot, add the capers and fry, stirring continuously, until they have opened up and become crisp, 1 to 2 minutes.
  5. Remove capers from the oil and sprinkle over the asparagus. Add dill. Mix gently to combine, transfer to a large plate and serve warm.

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Divine asparagus

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