How to cook asparagus: keep it simple, stupid

This regal vegetable needs very little help to be extraordinary

Bob’s asparagus tart. Photograph:  Emma Jervis

Bob’s asparagus tart. Photograph: Emma Jervis

 

The asparagus season has always been the highlight of the foodie calendar but for me, asparagus also symbolises the start of the local produce season. Such a regal vegetable is the perfect way to celebrate an upcoming period of abundance. It’s a vegetable that begs to be treated with kindness and not messed around with too much in the kitchen. It stands on its own and needs very little help to be extraordinary. It works best with the simple things in life.

Shortly before opening Good Things in Skibbereen I was on the lookout for a new grower and bumped into Aly Massey from Grá Farm in Ballydehob. My first delivery consisted of asparagus picked hours before, wrapped in damp newspaper, tied loosely in string and packaged into a beautiful woven basket. I marvelled at the care and attention given from start to finish, knowing we could only become firm friends.

This year I realised I needed to reduce my workload and handed over my restaurant to the lovely Perry sisters of Glebe Gardens, and my kitchen to the ever capable and passionate Bob Cairns.

On Bob’s current menu there is a very lovely asparagus tart (galette). A chef’s kitchen is a personal space and parting with it was only made easy by knowing it was taken over by someone I could trust – someone who continues the care shown by Aly within his cooking.

Bob has worked in some of my favourite London haunts: Moro, Polpetto and was head chef at Andrew Edmunds. But his skill is more than a list of CV points, it is care and attention and passion from start to finish, so I now find myself looking for reasons to go and eat his food.

Ingredients and their route to becoming a meal is a way of connection and creating community. For me, asparagus season has become an emblem of a new start, simplicity and abundance to come.

Aly’s asparagus soup

This soup is perfect when, like me, you can’t cope with waste. Asparagus take three years to start producing a crop so I assume Aly is not the only grower that makes a soup from the trimmings. Serves 4

Ingredients

  • 60g butter
  • 1 small onion
  • Salt and pepper
  • 1 tablespoon flour
  • 400ml asparagus cooking liquid (made from boiling some asparagus)
  • Uncooked trimmings from a large bunch of asparagus
  • 200ml full cream milk
  • 4 raw spears of asparagus

Method
1. Melt the butter in a pan. Add the onions, season well with salt and pepper and soften with a lid on for a couple of minutes.

2. Add in the flour and mix it well and then add in the asparagus water, along with the trimmings of the asparagus, making sure any dry ends are removed.

3. Turn the heat down and cook until the asparagus is very soft, this can take up to 30 minutes. Next add the milk and bring gently back to the boil. Remove from the heat and allow to cool slightly before whizzing with a hand blender or in a liquidiser.

4. Taste and adjust the seasoning if needed. If the soup is still stringy, pass it through a sieve for a smoother result.

5. Finally, chop the raw asparagus spears into bitesize pieces and scatter on top of the soup just before serving.

Aly’s asparagus soup. Photograph: Emma Jervis
Aly’s asparagus soup. Photograph: Emma Jervis

Chargrilled asparagus and romesco

This recipe is from Bob Cairns and shouts of spring. I often double the sauce recipe as you will find many uses for it.  Serves 4

Ingredients

  • 16-20 asparagus spears
  • 2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
  • Generous pinch of sea salt

For the romesco:

  • 3 red bell peppers, roasted, peeled and deseeded
  • 2 dried ñora peppers or similar mild dried peppers, rehydrated and chopped
  • 100g whole blanched almonds, lightly roasted
  • 4 large cloves of garlic, peeled and thinly sliced
  • 1 thick slice of day-old white sourdough, crusts removed and diced
  • 80ml of extra virgin olive oil
  • 20ml sherry vinegar
  • salt and pepper

Method
1. To make the romesco, pour about half the olive oil into a small saucepan. Heat, then gently fry the garlic slices until they turn a light golden colour and have a nutty aroma. Remove the garlic with a slotted spoon, retaining both the oil and the garlic.

2. Next, fry the diced bread in the garlic-infused oil until it becomes golden and crunchy.

3. Place the roasted peppers, fried garlic, ñora peppers and bread into a blender and pulse until you get a smooth paste. Add the almonds and pulse until they are partly broken down but retain some texture.

4. Transfer the romesco to a bowl, stir in the remaining extra virgin olive oil and the vinegar and season to taste. If the sauce seems very thick, loosen it with a little water. The romesco will keep for a week in the fridge and can be made in advance.

5. Finally, heat a griddle pan, coat the asparagus with the olive oil, place on the griddle and season with salt. Cook on the griddle for 4-5 minutes, turning half way through.

6. Serve immediately with a generous spoonful of romesco.

Chargrilled asparagus and romesco. Photograph: Emma Jervis
Chargrilled asparagus and romesco. Photograph: Emma Jervis

Asparagus and ricotta galette with wild garlic pesto

This recipe is also from Bob Cronin. When I first saw this dish leave the kitchen it made me very happy. These tarts are a dream to make. Keep this pastry recipe and use it with other fillings as the year goes on.  Serves 4

Ingredients
 

For the pastry

  • 180g plain flour
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 170g chilled unsalted butter cut into small cubes
  • 80ml cold water

For the galette

  • 250g ricotta
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 tablespoon grated Parmesan plus extra to garnish
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  • salt and pepper
  • Nutmeg
  • 12 asparagus spears

For the pesto

  • 100ml extra virgin olive oil
  • 85g wild garlic (washed and chopped)
  • 85g Parmesan (grated)
  • 50g whole blanched almonds
  • Juice of a lemon
  • salt and pepper

Method
1. First make the pastry. Put the flour, salt and butter into a blender and blitz for 5-10 seconds, then add the water and pulse for a further 5 seconds. The dough should start coming together. Turn the mixture out on to a work surface and bring it together to form a ball. Flatten the mix slightly, cover and leave in the fridge for a least an hour.

2. In the meantime, add the ricotta to a large bowl. Whisk in the eggs, then the Parmesan, lemon juice, a grating of nutmeg and season to taste.

3. To make the pesto, put all the ingredients in a blender, blitz and season to taste.

4. Roll the dough out on a lightly floured surface until about 30cm in diameter then transfer it to a baking sheet lined with baking parchment. Add the ricotta mix to the pastry, spreading it evenly and leaving about a 5cm border free of ricotta mix. Fold the pastry edges in gently. Finish with a little more nutmeg and grated Parmesan

5. Bake in a preheated oven at 180 degrees for about 40 mins or until the pastry is golden and the ricotta filling is starting to colour nicely.

6. Toss the asparagus in a little olive oil, season lightly with salt, then cook under a grill until tender. Arrange the spears on top of the cooked galette. Serve with the wild garlic pesto and a green salad.

Boiled eggs and asparagus soldiers. Photograph: Emma Jervis
Boiled eggs and asparagus soldiers. Photograph: Emma Jervis

Asparagus soldiers

This is a cool way to serve asparagus. Make sure you use good salt and butter and everyone will be happy, especially if you add a chilled crisp, buttery white wine for the grown ups. Serves 4 as a starter

Ingredients

  • 4 eggs
  • Salt
  • Butter
  • 16 asparagus spears
  • Fresh bread

Method
1. Bring a pot of water to the boil for the asparagus. In the meantime boil the eggs for 4 minutes, remove and put to one side while you cook the asparagus.

2. Trim the asparagus and cook until just tender. Remove from the water gently and drain well.

4. Place the eggs in egg cups and divide the asparagus between four plates along with the eggs and serve at once. Serve with the butter and salt and a loaf of fresh bread

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