I love British asparagus. It has to be one of the most distinctly delicious vegetables ever, and right now is the time to be taking advantage of its very short season - traditionally between St. George’s Day (23rd April) and Midsummer day (21st June).
Magnificent whichever way you cook it, perhaps my favourite way is to lightly steam it and serve it with salty dairy ingredients such as butter and cheese. Asparagus also has a particular affinity with eggs, so hollandaise sauce - a heavenly combination of eggs and butter - is for me the ultimate indulgence.
Suffice to say, I’ll be going mad for British asparagus for the next few weeks…steaming, roasting, boiling, chargrilling, in salads (like the Spanish are wont to do) or raw, this seasonal treat is seriously good! Clearly I’m not the only one to appreciate English asparagus’s delicate, fresh, sweet taste (eaten raw it reminds me of young freshly-podded peas) because sales of this trendy vegetable have sky-rocketed in recent years. So, whilst British asparagus is currently enjoying its truly deserved ‘best in the world’ status, I think it would be remiss of me not to feature some of my pick-of-the-crop recipes.
The shortest and sweetest one I know involves nothing more than snapping off the bottom ends of the spears (they conveniently break just in the right place), placing them in a single layer in a large frying pan with a good knob of butter (25g / 1oz) and 150ml / 5fl oz water and cooking them over a medium high heat for 2-3 minutes until the water has almost evaporated. Turn the heat to medium and continue cooking, turning occasionally, for another 6-8 minutes until the asparagus is glistening and tinged golden in a reduction of buttery juices. Served with lemon, a few flakes of sea salt and a grinding of black pepper, it’s simply irresistible.
However, after my hyper-excitement about British asparagus now hitting the shops, it would be a bit of a tease to just leave it at that! So today’s recipe for Baked Eggs with Asparagus, Mushrooms & Cheese, is altogether a more substantial dish - a meal in itself. It is also a celebration of asparagus that marries it together with some of its most harmonious flavour pairings - eggs, cheese and mushrooms.
Baked Eggs with Asparagus, Mushrooms & Cheese can be ready to eat in 45 minutes. It’s also fast and straight forward to prepare. The only tricky part is keeping the egg yolks still slightly runny whilst making sure the egg whites are properly set (though it’s infinitely better to have over-set egg yolks than it is slimy egg whites!) The best way I’ve found to get this dish just perfect is to use individual oven-proof dishes set in a bain-marie (water bath) and to be meticulous with the timing!
Baked Eggs with Asparagus, Mushrooms & Cheese (V) (Serves 2)
350g asparagus (7-8 spears per person)
150g organic closed-cup mushrooms
1 tbsp olive oil
125 ml organic double cream
80g Parmesan or Twineham Grange (vegetarian) cheese, finely grated
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 large organic free-range eggs
Fresh flat-leaf parsley sprigs, to garnish
15g butter, for greasing gratin dishes (the dishes I use are 23cm x 17cm / 9in x 5in)
Boil a kettle of water. Pre-heat the oven to 180℃ / 350℉ / Gas mark 4
To prepare asparagus, bend the asparagus spear (close to its base) until it snaps, then throw the woody end away. If the ends still feel tough, you can pare away the exterior with a potato peeler to reveal the more tender flesh beneath.
Pour the boiling water from the kettle into the base of a steamer. Lay the asparagus spears in the top of the steamer and, with the lid on, steam for 2-3 minutes until crispy-tender. Drain and plunge immediately in cold water to stop the cooking process (or place under a running cold tap). Drain again, then dry the spears between two sheets of kitchen paper and set aside.
Either quickly wash the mushrooms under a cold tap and dry on kitchen paper or clean them with damp kitchen paper and cut into thickish slices (4-5 slices per mushroom). Heat the olive oil in a frying pan over a medium high heat and quickly stir-fry the mushrooms for 3 minutes or until softened and golden brown. Immediately tip the cooked mushrooms into a metal sieve set over a bowl (to drain off the excess juices), then lightly season the mushrooms with sea salt and black pepper and leave to cool.
Butter two individual oven-proof (gratin) dishes well.
Boil another kettle of water.
Lightly season the cream with sea salt and black pepper. Divide all but 2 tablespoons of the cream equally between the two dishes. Swirl the dishes around so the cream is distributed evenly over the bottom of each dish then sprinkle over about three quarters (60 grams) of the grated cheese, again dividing it equally.
Arrange the cooked mushrooms and asparagus neatly on top, in that order. Sprinkle over the rest of the cheese.
Carefully break 2 eggs into each dish, then spoon the remaining cream over the top of each egg.
Place the dishes in a large roasting tin and pour in enough boiling water from the kettle until it reaches about halfway up their sides.
Bake in the pre-heated oven on the middle shelf for 10 minutes - since oven temperatures can vary considerably, check after 8 minutes - the egg whites should be just set (still wobbly but opaque) and, hopefully, the yolks slightly runny. N.B. Don’t overcook as the eggs continue to cook in the residual heat of the dishes after they’ve been taken out of the oven.
Carefully (I use silicone oven gloves), remove the dishes from the bain-marie directly onto a dry tea-towel.
Garnish each dish with a sprig of fresh parsley and serve immediately with a decent glass of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. Deliciously sexy, unctuous food, or what?
Choose asparagus spears that are uniform in size - not too thick and not too thin (definitely not sprue). Given a choice, I like my asparagus to err on the side of thicker rather than thinner because I think you get more flavour and texture. To check the uniformity of thickness within a pre-packed bunch of asparagus, tip it upside down and look at the base of the shoots. You want them all roughly the same diameter so that they will cook evenly. Fresh asparagus should have tight perky tips and shoots that are straight and firm. If possible, eat on the day of purchase - though asparagus will keep in a refrigerator for up to 4 days with the base of their stems wrapped in damp kitchen towel and placed inside a perforated plastic bag.
Asparagus packs a nutritional punch, with high levels of vitamins A and C, potassium, iron and calcium. They're also a diuretic and give your pee an unmistakable aroma (which, weirdly, not everyone can smell!).
Twineham Grange cheese is a delicious vegetarian alternative to Parmesan Reggiano. This full-flavoured hard cheese is absolutely perfect for cooking. It seems to me to have the melting quality of Gruyere with a similar flavour profile to Parmesan. Brilliant!
Carbohydrate 9g Protein 35g - per individual serving