This column has long preached seasonality. Hardly original, and to country folk it's as natural as, well, the seasons. But when you're on the hamster wheel of business, especially in Scotland where our dull climate means we barely need to change our wardrobe from month to month, it's easy to let the subtle changes in available ingredients pass us by. Now in my seventh year of retirement I'm over that hump. Perhaps for some who are still on the treadmill this will be an unexpected benefit of lockdown.
After autumn, May is my favourite food month, one when some of the finest goodies that Britain has to offer make their first, and in some cases, fleeting, appearance. I think that the COVID gods are already trying to make some slight amends for their wickedness. Last year, for me, May was a disappointment. I have already eaten strawberries and Jersey Royals of a much higher quality than any I tasted last year. And what of today's beauty, asparagus? I gather that the soil in Scotland is still a little chilly, but the English stuff is already in its prime. Happy days.
To prep asparagus, hold the stalk in two hands and bend it gently at the bottom. It will break at the right place - nature's way. Save the bases for soup - see below. As I say every time I write about asparagus, don't boil it. Even if you don't overcook, you let much of the goodness go with the cooking water. Steaming is good, but I prefer to cook it in the oven. Preheat to 200˚C/ Mark 6. Spread the veg on a roasting tray. Sprinkle with sea salt and drizzle with olive oil. Use your good stuff for this - Orodeal for me - and bake for about 10 - 15 minutes until the asparagus is tender. Cooking time will vary according to thickness. Classic accompaniments are melted butter or Hollandaise sauce. You can melt cheese on the top - Gruyere and Parmesan are favourites. I like thick shavings of the latter and a good squeeze of lemon juice. Most of us serve it as a first course, but we ate the next dish as a main the other night. It's just a celebration of four great things.
Asparagus with Jamon Iberico, Jersey Royals and Poached Duck Egg
Ingredients, per person (though you could probably guess them from the title)
6 good sized asparagus spears, baked or steamed as above; 3 - 4 pieces of jamon Iberico (or you could use Parma Ham); 3 Jersey Royal potatoes; 1 duck egg (use a hen's egg if you can't find duck - remember that for poaching you want the freshest eggs you can source); Orodeal olive oil (or other top quality EVOO); sea salt; lemon juice; pepper.
Arrange the ham on a plate. Cook the potatoes and asparagus - they will both take about the same time if the potatoes are small to medium. A few minutes before they are done, poach the eggs. Add a capful (that's CAP not CUP) of vinegar to the water but NO salt. Bring to the boil and swirl. Break the eggs into ramekins and gently slide into the water. A hen's egg will take 3 minutes: a duck's 3 -4 minutes. Put the asparagus centre plate, with the potatoes on the side. Season to taste with lemon juice, salt and pepper. Drain the egg and pop on top of the asparagus, breaking the yolk just before serving.
Cream of Asparagus Soup
I will never forget the day I realised that a soup so delicate and delicious could be made from something which I used to discard. I very seldom add cream to anything these days, but it really enhances this soup. Just be careful not to add too much as this could overwhelm the subtle flavour. For many veg soups I add a small potato to give it a little thickness. Unlike most veg soups you are losing a lot of body, as most of the woody asparagus will be lost at the sieving stage. For that reason an extra one will do no harm. But please, use your every day spuds to thicken, NOT the precious Jerseys,
Ingredients (serves 4 - 6)
The bases of about 30 asparagus stalks (see above), cut into thin rounds; 50g butter; 1 medium onion, finely chopped; 2 medium potatoes, peeled and cut into very small cubes; 750ml chicken stock; 100ml double cream (optional); salt and pepper.
Soften the onion in the butter for a few minutes, then add the potato. Add a little salt and pepper at this stage. Cook for a couple more minutes, add the asparagus and cook for a couple more. Pour in the stock, bring to the boil then simmer until all the vegetables are soft. Season to taste. Strain through a fine sieve, then return to the heat and add the cream. Be careful not to boil. Check the seasoning and serve.