Food For Thought


By Nuala Cullen.

Asparagus, surprisingly, is a member of the lily family, and like so many interesting vegetables, came originally from the Mediterranean, though it has been it has been ‘native’ to these shores for hundreds of years. In the past it was widely grown in Ireland and few comfortable farms or country houses were without an asparagus bed. Often referred to in old recipes as “sparrowgrass,” it used to be known as the Queen of vegetables and tasting those first home grown spears of the season, one can understand why.

Nowadays of course it’s a top commercial crop, available all year round from many different countries. There are several varieties, though the green type is more usual here. The thick white or pink tipped varieties, popular in France and Italy, appear later in the season

The Irish season, depending on the weather, runs from the beginning of May to mid or late June and while there are numerous asparagus festivals in the English growing districts during this period, unfortunately there is no large scale commercial production in Ireland at the moment, though there is some availability from small local growers in the Wexford and North Dublin areas.

Asparagus has advantages other than taste and texture, containing many valuable nutrients including folic acid and lots of fibre, so it is important to look out for the freshest and juiciest looking bundles, avoiding any that are wrinkled and dehydrated.

Asparagus has advantages other than taste and texture, containing many valuable nutrients including folic acid and lots of fibre, so it is important to look out for the freshest and juiciest looking bundles, avoiding any that are wrinkled and dehydrated.

The preparation is very simple.  Separate the bundles and wash gently, cutting away the fibrous woody ends, usually about an inch from the cut end.  Where the green exterior skin is very tough the spears can be peeled lightly with a potato peeler or sharp knife. The fat white variety usually needs to be peeled.

Asparagus is usually cooked in bundles, convenient if a large quantity is being cooked, as it allows for taking all the spears out of the water at the same time, and there are tall, narrow saucepans especially for the purpose. The water level should stop below the tips, which will cook lightly in the steam.

However, a wide, deep sauté pan, or saucepan, which will fit the asparagus lying down (and loose, if it’s more convenient) works just as well. Arrange the spears in one direction with tinfoil bunched under the tips, which will raise them out of the water a little to avoid overcooking. To test, use the point of a sharp knife. The asparagus should be just tender, the tips slightly crunchy, and still green. (A tablespoon of lemon juice in the cooking water helps with this).  Depending on the thickness 5 to 8 minutes may be enough, less if it’s homegrown and freshly cut.  The white variety needs to be cooked until tender to avoid any bitter edge to the flavour.

If the asparagus is to be used cold, plunge immediately into cold water to stop the cooking, and then dry in kitchen paper.  When the spears are served whole, as a starter, they’re traditionally eaten with the fingers and dipped in the sauce, which is served in bowls, though obviously that a matter of choice.

Among the classic dressings for warm asparagus are: melted butter with lemon juice; thin béchamel sauce with finely chopped hardboiled eggs; hollandaise sauce; toasted almond flakes and lemon juice sprinkled the over asparagus.

Cold asparagus can be served with plain vinaigrette; vinaigrette with chopped chives, a little tarragon and a few capers; with good mayonnaise; ‘a la fontenelle’, in which a bowl of melted butter and a soft boiled egg are served per person.  Using the fingers, the spears are dipped in the melted butter and then in the soft warm egg yolk.  It’s a talking point – and needs generous sized napkins.  Serve with bread and butter, either brown or fresh crusty rolls.

Asparagus Soup

16 spears asparagus

175g/6ozs peeled potato

2 medium leeks

4 tablespoons butter

1 litre/ l ¾ pints chicken stock

4 tablespoons crème fraiche salt and pepper

Cut the tips from half the asparagus spears and set aside for the garnish.  Cut away the woody ends of the stalks and chop all the remaining asparagus into small pieces.  Peel and cube the potatoes and wash and finely chop the leeks.  Blanch the reserved asparagus tips in salted boiling water for 4-5 minutes, cool in cold water, drain and set aside.

Melt the butter in a large saucepan and cook the leeks gently for a few moments then add the potato and the chopped asparagus.  Add the stock and simmer for about 20 minutes.

Puree the soup in a blender or food processor and return to the saucepan.  Add the crème fraiche and a walnut size lump of butter.  Garnish with the asparagus tips.

Asparagus Tart

8/9 inch tin lined with shortcrust pastry

1 bunch of asparagus, trimmed and cooked

1 tablespoon parmesan cheese

175ml cream, approx.

3 eggs plus 2 yolks

2 teaspoons grated lemon rind

Salt and black pepper

Cut the asparagus into short lengths and scatter over the pastry. Add the lemon rind.  Beat the eggs, cream and egg yolks together until thoroughly mixed.  Season well and pour over the asparagus.  Scatter the parmesan over the top and bake at 180/mark 5 until lightly set, about 40 minutes. Allow to rest in the tin and serve warm.