The Handbook
The Handbook

Asparagus is truly one of those hero vegetables that can transform a dish, make a dish or simply be the dish when served alone.

It’s bright, slightly earthy flavour is loved by chefs and once asparagus season comes into play, those speared green fingers pop up on just about every menu, in fact, many chefs create whole menus dedicated to the things.

We’re not complaining and to celebrate British asparagus season, which is very short (just May through to June), we’ve gone to the experts to steal their tips on how to prep, cook and serve asparagus.

From eating it raw to frying in bread crumbs, simple soups to show stopping tarts, we’ve got big plans for your next bunch of asparagus.

First up, we spoke to Alex Head, Founder of Social Pantry, Crane’s Kitchen and Soane’s Kitchen. Not only is Alex a champion of British produce, eating seasonally and responsibly, but she’s a proud ex-offender employee who has trained and given jobs to many men and women coming out of the prison system, turning their lives around.

“I love asparagus season and never fail to get excited about all the wonderful recipes you can cook,” says Alex, “Supporting the British farmers is essential, now more than ever.”

Here she shares her top tips for cooking with asparagus:

1. Sometimes simple wins

In a pan, add a dash of good quality olive oil and cook as a single layer until lightly browned. Finish off with a knob of butter and good pinch of salt. Enjoy as a pre-dinner nibble, light snack or just when peckish.

2. Bend & Snap…. but keep the ends

If your asparagus is young and slim you only need to wash ahead of cooking. If you are using thicker asparagus, you will want to break off the tougher end, there is a natural breakpoint if you bend the stem.

After snapping the asparagus don’t throw away the ticker part of the stem, this can be thinly sliced and used in a risotto. I used the stalks in a wild garlic and pea risotto last week and it was delicious.

3. Eat it raw

Fresh asparagus can taste even better raw than cooked. Shave the stalks as thinly as you can with a peeler and add to any salad this Spring.

4. Avoid boiling

You can BBQ, griddle, roast, steam and even eat raw. I personally avoid boiling asparagus to keep all the goodness in.

5. Try breaded asparagus

As we have a little more time these days why not try breaded asparagus? I served mine with a sweet chili sauce. Pane the asparagus (cover it in plain flour, beaten egg and then seasoned breadcrumbs) and shallow fry until crispy. Make sure to serve when hot.

Mid Spring is one of our favourite times on the restaurant scene as chefs from all cuisines create special dishes, sometimes whole menus, around asparagus season. Given that restaurants are closed due to lockdown, we’ve brought some of those recipes to you, as four top chefs from British restaurants and some of Europe’s most decadent hotels, share their favourite dishes using asparagus…

Spring Carbonara

by Chef Vito Mollica at Il Palagio, Four Seasons Hotel Florence

Ingredients:

  • 320g Fusilloro Verrigni pasta (or alternative pasta)
  • 4 egg yolks
  • 60g grated Parmesan cheese
  • 200 g Pig Cheek (guanciale)
  • 8 asparagus spears cut into pieces
  • 100g Shelled peas
  • 100g fresh shelled broad beans
  • 20g extra virgin olive oil
  • 60g fresh Marzolino Pecorino cheese
  • Ground pepper

Method:

  1. In a pan, slowly melt the pig cheek until it becomes crispy. Cook pasta in salted water (plenty). While the pasta is cooking, beat the egg yolks with grated Parmesan cheese.
    Remove the pig cheek from the pan and set aside. Add a little cooking water to the fat of the pig cheek, mixing together until you get a nice emulsion.
  2. Saute the chopped asparagus, peas and fresh broad beans in a pan with the extra oil virgin olive, vegetables must be kept crunchy.
    Add the crispy pig cheek and a dash of pasta cooking water and remove by fire.
  3. Drain the fusilli al dente, pour them into the pan with the emulsion of water and fat of the pig cheek and let it cook for a minute to mix the flavours.
  4. Reduce the heat to a minimum, add the egg and Parmesan cheese mixture and mix well. You must have a nice cream, add a bit of cooking water if necessary. Remove from the fire and finish with the mix of vegetables and crispy pig cheek,the fresh Marzolino pecorino cheese cut into very small pieces and a sprinkle of ground pepper. Serve immediately.

Asparagus & Goats Cheese Tart

by Roberta Hall McCarron, The Little Chartroom

For the pastry:

  • 250g plain flour
  • 125g cold butter
  • 4g salt
  • 65g cream cheese
  • 65g double cream
  • ½ teaspoon sugar
  • ½ teaspoon baking sugar
  • 1 egg
  1. Pulse all the dry ingredients and butter together until crumbly.
  2. Add the wet ingredients to the dough, don’t overmix.
  3. Wrap in cling film and place in the fridge, rest for approx. 2 hours.
  4. Roll out and press into desired moulds (ideally around 8cm diameter)
  5. Line with baking beans/pulses and blind bake at 170 degrees C for approx. 15-20 minutes until pastry is almost cooked.
  6. Remove beans and finish cooking until golden in colour and crispy.

For the asparagus puree:

4 bunches of asparagus

2 shallots

500 ml chicken stock/veg stock

50g baby spinach

Seasoning, to taste

  1. Thinly slice the shallots and sweat down in a pot.
  2. Keep 8 spears of asparagus to one side, these will be to serve alongside the tart. From the remaining spears, take 4 and cut into ½ cm slices up to the head of the spear and put them to one side, these will be to serve in the tart.
  3. Chop the rest of the asparagus into small pieces, add to the shallots and sweat down.
  4. Cover with stock and reduce until almost dry.
  5. Add in the baby spinach and wilt down.
  6. Blend until smooth.
  7. Season to taste.
  8. Cool it down quickly in a bowl that is sitting over ice to help retain the green colour

For the asparagus:

  1. Blanch the remaining asparagus in salty water for 1 minute, then refresh in ice cold water. Remove when cold.

To assemble:

  • 40g goats cheese
  • 1 lemon
  1. Take your pastry and fill the bottom with a good amount of the asparagus puree
  2. Take 40g of goats cheese for each tart and spread that out on top.
  3. Depending on the thickness you will need approximately twelve of the small asparagus slices to place around the side of the tart on top of the cheese.
  4. Zest a little bit of lemon over the top of the tart.
  5. You can chargrill, barbecue or pan-fry your 8 spears of asparagus to serve alongside the tarts. Crack a little bit of rock salt on top of the spears when serving.

Asparagus Risotto

by Michelin-starred chef Simone Zanoni, Four Seasons Hotel George V, Paris

Ingredients:

  • 1kg of asparagus
  • 4 coffee cups of Carnaroli rice
  • 2 glasses of dry white wine
  • 60g butter
  • 80g of parmigiano reggiano cheese
  • 2 lemons
  • 4 slices of guanciale or pancetta

Method:

Prepare the asparagus:

  1. Cut the white part and peel the asparagus
  2. For a very tasty risotto, boil it in 100ml of water. Add vegetable stock to create a broth and let it boil for 10 minutes
  3. Cut the asparagus tips. Set aside.
  4. Cut the rest of asparagus into thin slices and brown them in a frying pan with garlic, olive oil, thyme, salt and pepper.
  5. Mix to obtain an asparagus puree. Set aside.

Prepare the risotto rice:

  1. Cut the guanciale into thin slices and brown them in a frying pan. Set aside, and use the same pan to start cooking your rice with the guanciale fat. After 3min, add the white wine.
  2. Then, start mixing the risotto with the asparagus broth little by little over 13min. At the same time, cook the asparagus tips in boiling water until “al dente”. Set aside 3 asparagus tips per person, and cut the rest into slices.
  3. At the end of the process, add the asparagus puree and the slices of asparagus.
  4. Let it rest for 3 minutes.
  5. Then, add the parmigiano cheese and the butter. Stir to combine.
  6. On a warm plate, arrange your risotto with the asparagus tips, the fried guanciale and lemon peel.

Asparagus Soup

by Richard Bainbridge, chef owner Benedicts, Norwich

Ingredients:

  • 250g new potatoes (washed, skin on, thinly sliced)
  • 1 bunch of asparagus (sliced, keeping tips for garnish)
  • 1 large banana shallot (thinly sliced)
  • 2 garlic cloves (peeled, sliced)
  • 500ml water
  • 3-4 sprigs of garden mint (crushed)
  • 100ml double cream
  • 40g salted butter
  • Sea salt & white pepper to taste

Method:

  1. Place a pot on a low heat, once hot add a splash of rapeseed oil and add your shallots and garlic, sweat until cooked without colour (turn down the heat if going to quickly).
  2. Once cooked add your potato and stir well.
  3. Add your water, good pinch of sea salt and the crushed mint.
  4. Turn the heat up and bring to the boil. Simmer for 10-12mins until the potatoes are just cooked, add your asparagus and continue to cook for 4-6 minutes.
  5. Then add the cream, bring back to the boil and remove the mint.
  6. Place into a blender and blend until smooth for approx. 3-6mins. Pass through a sieve and stir in your butter and season with more sea salt and white pepper.

Chef’s tip; What I like to do is fill a soup bowl with some nice seasonal raw vegetables like peas, broad beans, sugar snap peas, garden flowers or herbs and a good splash of Norfolk rapeseed oil and even some lightly cooked Norfolk spring lamb. (just chop the slightly larger vegetables into bite size pieces).