The green asparagus and the white

May 9, 2011 § Leave a comment

Yes, you guessed it – curiosity piqued by the current BBC adaption of “The Crimson Petal and the White” I’ve finally got round to reading Michel Faber’s racy historical novel . It made a perfect holiday read over Easter in France, punctuating the main activities of exploring the Forêt de Fontainebleau and thinking about the next meal.

I was reminded of the febrile atmosphere of the novel whilst strolling past a curiously mounded asparagus bed on the outskirts of the village where we were staying:

The French prefer their asparagus white with the tips displaying just a tinge of purple. This is achieved by banking the soil up around each asparagus crown to blanch the growing shoots. Pausing beside the weird dusty anthills concealing the exclusively male crowns beneath, you can practically hear the shoots growing as they thrust upwards towards the source of warmth and light. I felt positively faint after a few minutes gazing at these shoots in the lazy afternoon sunshine.

The Germans too prefer the thicky juicy spears of white asparagus (Spargel in German). Despite their buttoned-up reputation, they go a little bit crazy during asparagus season (“Spargelzeit”) when asparagus festivals and special restaurant menus abound. The thick juicy white spears are simply served either on their own or with boiled potatoes and ham and always with generous pools of yellow buttery hollandaise sauce.

Whilst in Dusseldorf during Spargelzeit I was intrigued to find an asparagus ice cream sundae on the menu. This turned out to be a spectacular trompe l’oeil affair of piped vanilla and palest pistachio ice cream (to imitate the spears) topped with chilled vanilla sauce to mimic the hollandaise. Only in Germany…

We Brits prefer the arguably better flavoured and certainly more decorous green asparagus. No stonking purple-tipped white shoots the width of a baby’s arm here thank you! There is the added plus point for the lazy cook that tender shoots of green asparagus don’t require peeling unlike their continental cousins.

So what does a field of English green asparagus look like? I’d fondly imagined rows upon rows of waving green fronds but in fact the banked-up rows of dry soil I spotted in Suffolk don’t look radically different from their French counterparts:

I took this photo in the sandy fields near the coast around Wrentham. These spears were destined for the packing sheds of Sea Breeze Asparagus http://www.seabreezeasparagus.co.uk/ who supply by mail order all over the country and have come up with the delightful idea of sending an edible bouquet of perfect top grade asparagus spears to your loved one. It’s got to be better than a tired bunch of petrol station flowers hasn’t it?

So, what to do if you find yourself with a bunch of either the green asparagus or the white and feel inclined to do a little more with it than the usual steaming and serving with melted butter?

Having trawled through my collection of recipe books and notes, here are a couple of recipes that appeal to me, the first suitable for green asparagus and the second for white.

Recipe for grilled asparagus with blood oranges and tapenade toast

Serves 4

From Alice Waters’ inspirational and beautifully illustrated book “Chez Panisse Vegetables”. This is her typically relaxed Californian take on a classic combination of asparagus and oranges. Classical French cuisine does this by primly serving steamed asparagus presented in white napkin with the orange flavoured hollandaise known as Sauce Maltaise. All very well but a tad formal. In contrast, just reading Alice Waters’ recipe transports you to Californian wine country and the perfect al fresco supper…

Ingredients

For the tapenade

2 cups niçoise (black) olives, pitted
4 salt-packed anchovy fillets
1 clove garlic
salt
2 tablespoons capers
2 teaspoons lemon juice
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil

For the rest of the dish

1 shallot
3 blood oranges
1 and 1/2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar
1/2 teaspoon red wine vinegar
extra-virgin olive oil
salt and pepper
1 and 1/2 pounds fat (green) asparagus – 25 to 30 spears
4 slices country-style bread

First make the tapenade. Peel and smash the garlic with a pinch of salt. Using a food processor, pulse together the olive. anchovies, garlic and capers to make a coarse paste. Add the lemon juice and then gradually the olive oil, pulsing until completely incorporated. Put into a small bowl and set aside.

Peel and chop the shallot finely and macerate for 30 minutes in the juice of half an orange and the balsamic and red wine vinegars. Whisk in the olive oil to make a vinaigrette, and season with salt and pepper.

Peel just the zest from one of the oranges, chop it very fine and add to the vinaigrette. Cut away all the rind and pith from 2 and a half oranges (one half was used earlier for juicing) and slice them crosswise thinly into rounds.

Parboil and drain the asparagus. Brush lightly with olive oil, salt lightly and grill the asparagus ideally over charcoal or a wood fire for about 6 minutes over medium heat, turning often. At the same time, grill the bread.

When the bread is toasted, cut the slices into thirds and spread with tapenade. Arrange the asparagus on a platter with the orange slices on top. Drizzle the vinaigrette over and garnish with the tapenade toast.

Recipe for white asparagus and new potato salad with mustard and walnut vinaigrette

Serves 8 as a side dish

An idea I came up with whilst in France this easter. A good way of stretching a single bunch of asparagus into a dish to feed more than one or two people. The combination of white on white looks good, the chives add both colour and delicate onion flavour. The walnut oil imparts a delicious flavour to the salad without overpowering either the asparagus or the new potatoes. Reading the list of ingredients, I’m transported away from my computer screen in grey and cloudy Manchester to a sunny lunch table in France once more.

Ingredients

1 bunch white asparagus (500g)
650g small new potatoes
small bunch chives

For the dressing

3 tablespoons light olive oil
3 tablespoons walnut or hazelnut oil
1 tablespoon white balsamic vinegar or white wine vinegar plus a teaspoon of sugar
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
squeeze of lemon juice to taste
salt and freshly ground black pepper.

Wash, peel and trim the white asparagus. Steam for 10-15 minutes until soft but not mushy. Leave to cool, then slice each spear on the bias into 3 or 4 pieces. Set aside.

Prepare the dressing by whisking together all the ingredients. Taste and check for flavour and seasoning.

Scrub the new potatoes (no need to peel) and steam for 10 minutes or until cooked through (test with the point of a knife).

As soon as the potatoes are cool enough to handle, slice into chunks and tip into a bowl. Pour three quarters of the dressing over and stir. Leave for 5-10 minutes to allow the warm potatoes to absorb the dressing.

Add the reserved pieces of asparagus, the remaining dressing and a generous quantity of snipped chives to the bowl and stir carefully to distribute.

Transfer to a serving dish lined with little gem or baby cos lettuce leaves.

Contact details for Seabreeze Asparagus

Alison Cooper
Priory Road Site
Priory Road
Wrentham Beccles
NR34 7LR

Phone number 01502675330
E-mail address alison@wveg.co.uk
http://www.seabreezeasparagus.co.uk

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