It’s that time of the year when there’s an asparagus dish on the table at least once a week because like so many people, I love it so much I don’t mind eating it everyday when in season. I suppose it wouldn’t be difficult too, asparagus is a cooks dream when it comes to versatility. Finding different ways to make the best out its spell is hardly boring because whether it’s steamed, roasted, grilled, pan-fried, baked in tarts and quiches, added to salads, pasta or rice dishes or simply pureèd into a vibrant spring soup, asparagus in every way is an unsung hero to the exhausted cook.
The first time I ever got to taste them was back when I was still in my teens. I had left the village where I grew up and headed for the city to live with my sister and her husband to avoid the 60 kilometer commute to University. It was tradition to have dinner once a week at the home of my sister’s in-laws and Thursday nights fast became my favourite night of the week. Barbara and Bernard took great pleasure in serving a traditional English dinner of mashed potatoes with brown onion gravy, steamed brussels and tender pork chops, and way back then, it was white asparagus from a jar. It was the first time I had ever seen asparagus of any kind and I loved them! Growing up in an apartheid South Africa riddled with the devastating effects of sanctions, we rarely saw any fruit and vegetable that wasn’t locally grown. Humble farmers sold their freshly plucked produce at the Morning Market on Saturdays and while the variety wasn’t huge, everything was organic and if I close my eyes and go back there, I can still smell the freshness.
Fast forward more than twenty years later, organic or not, we can’t deny that we’re heavily spoilt for choice. I can’t remember the last time I picked up the canned variety of asparagus. I sometimes see fresh white asparagus at the green grocers, they don’t come cheap like they do in the cans, that much I’ve noticed. In some farmers markets you may find the burgundy variety, reputed for its sweetness and growing popularity in gourmet kitchens, but the most common, least expensive and my favourite is green asparagus.
For my personal taste, the best of the green variety should be slender and long. Slender stalks equals tender spears that are quick to prepare with very little wastage. Of course there are times when you’re inclined to buy a bunch that have thick woody ends. Still no problem. An easy solution is to chop off about a centimeter at the ends and trim off any remaining woodiness left on the stalk with a vegetable peeler. Once the tough bits of the stalks are trimmed off, what’s left is flesh tender enough to eat when cooked in a flash.
Yes these vegetables don’t need much time to cook especially because they’re so tender so be mindful not to cook the life out them. Fifteen to eighteen minutes in a hot oven (dry heat) or ten to twelve minutes if being sautéed on the hob (direct heat). Cooking with liquid heat is the fastest way to cook so if steaming, even less cooking time is needed. I specify steaming because boiling green asparagus should be a culinary crime. Although it is done, in my personal opinion, steaming is so much gentler on these tender vegetables, retaining much of their colour and flavour. If it must be done though, boil for no more than five minutes.
Of course you’ll also need to know what flavours pair well with them. If you don’t already know, lemon and garlic is a classic pairing with asparagus and sometimes when I’m feeling exceptionally lazy, I’ll simply toss them in a hot pan with garlic butter and before serving I’ll add a squeeze of fresh lemon juice and a good sprinkling of finely grated Parmigiano. They’re absolutely divine! Italians have this thing that they sometimes do when they eat called scarpetta. Scarpetta literally means little shoe but at the dining table it refers to using a piece of bread to wipe up the last remaining bits of what’s left in the dish. I’ve noticed that the times we do scarpetta the most, is when sautéed asparagus with garlic butter and Parmigiano is served. It’s one of those simple pleasures that leaves the heart feeling greatly content.
For a more refined dish however, I decided to share my roasted asparagus recipe draped with a fragrant lemon custard. Somewhat less terrifying to prepare than a hollandaise this effortless custard makes a sensational accompaniment to the spears. Serve this dish as an appetiser or with poached eggs for brunch or better yet, create it as a side with seafood like a nicely grilled piece of fish or a mix of fruit from the sea. Whatever you decide, this elegant dish never disappoints at an impromptu gathering with friends and family because it is that simple and fast to get to the table. It’s another one of those dishes that we do scarpetta to as well, and you’ll probably do the same should you give this a try.
For the Lemon Custard
*Note: Usually this step is done while the asparagus spears are roasting in the oven so that once they are roasted the custard is fresh to be poured over. However if making the custard well in advance it is best to place cling film over the surface of the custard to prevent unwanted skin from forming. If the skin does form, never mix into the custard as this will cause unappetising lumps. Rather spoon the surface of the custard away. To reheat, add milk a little at a time to ensure that the consistency is perfect as the custard will thicken again with the heat.
- 300ml milk
- 1 egg yolk
- 2 tbsp crème fraîche
- 2 tbsp cornflour
- zest of 1 lemon
- squeeze of fresh lemon juice
- 1/2 tsp fine sea salt
- pinch of white pepper
- 25g butter
- In a small saucepan bring milk to a simmer with lemon zest on low heat. Adding the zest now will infuse the lemon flavour into the milk.
- Meanwhile in a separate bowl whisk together egg yolk and cornflour until well combined. If the mixture looks lumpy add a few drops of milk and whisk vigorously until there are no lumps.
- Once the milk starts to form little bubbles around the edges of the pan, it is ready to be added to the eggs. Pour the milk into the egg mixture a little at a time, all while whisking the eggs. (In other words temper the eggs with the milk. This will prevent the egg component from scrambling with the heat).
- Once combined transfer the mixture back into the saucepan and whisk on medium heat. Gradually the mixture will start to thicken into a custard, (5-7 minutes). Squeeze the juice of a quarter of lemon into the custard followed by crème fraîche and whisk to combine.
- Switch of the heat, season with salt and pepper.
- Add in the butter and mix until velvety and smooth.
For the Asparagus
- 400g asparagus
- 1/2 tsp fine sea salt
- pinch of freshly crushed black pepper
- 1 garlic pod finely chopped
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- 1 tbsp butter
- Preheat oven to 180°C gas fan/200°C convectional/220°C conventional.
- Begin preparing the asparagus by chopping off a centimetres off each stalk. The tough, woody ends can then be trimmed with a vegetable peeler. Any purplish colour is a sign of where to begin trimming. Rinse under cold running water.
- Add oil to a baking dish before placing the trimmed asparagus spears in, all in one direction.
- Season with salt, pepper and garlic. Coat the spears with the seasoning using fingers.
- Add butter.
- Roast for 15 minutes, tossing once at the half way mark.
- Transfer onto a platter, pour custard over the trimmed stalks. Serve immediately.