Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Asparagus in the raw

Raw Asparagus, pea-shoots and mint salad

Spare a thought for the asparagus farmer subject to the vagaries of our climate.  Yes, there has been indoor-grown asparagus for a few weeks now but outdoor grown - and, for me, nothing tastes as good - is struggling with our unseasonal weather.

Normally the asparagus farmer has six weeks of frantic activity harvesting the crop for market, then it's all over until next year.  Traditionally in the UK the season begins around St George's Day (23 April) and by mid-Summer's Day cutting should stop.  The plants continue to put up spears but these are allowed to grow into tall fronds which photosynthesise to build up nutrients for next year's crop.  In November the plant is cut back to ground level.  It takes about three years for an asparagus crown to become established and, if treated right, will will be productive for 10 years.  Quite an investment and hence the relatively high price of those bundles.  Asparagus likes well-drained, rich loamy soil - which rules it out for my heavy clay allotment patch.

Isle of Wight Asparagus

Asparagus needs warm, dry conditions in its final weeks, so it's no surprise that the outdoor-grown crop is late this year.  Last year it wasn't at market before the second week in May.  This year the delay to the season is even more severe.  By 19th May there was still little to be had in London, apart from a small amount from the Isle of Wight - always the first to arrive.  My favourite source is that grown by New Park Farm in Kent which is brought up to London for six weeks every years.  The care and attention they lavish on the crop is clear and I know of no other asparagus that tastes as good.

Freshness is key to taste so, when you do finally get your hands on it, don't let it linger in the fridge.  Those spears are packed with beneficial nutrients too - vitamins A and C, folic acid, potassium and iron.

So how to make a little go a long way and get the most out of its special flavour?  When I get my hands on a bunch of asparagus my first thought is usually how I'm going to cook it.  Until last week, that is, when it was served to me raw.  Sliced super-fine, mixed with a few pea-shoots and dressed with a lemony vinaigrette and a touch of mint, it was the perfect way to eke out a few spears.  I've unashamedly stolen this idea from chef Steve Williams of 40 Maltby Street, though it's my interpretation.  It's as close as I can get to his vibrant, seasonal dish.

Raw Asparagus, Mint & Pea-shoot salad
(Serves 4 as a starter)

8-12 asparagus spears
A handful of pea-shoots
8-10 mint leaves
1 tbsp lemon juice
4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
Salt & pepper

Snap the tough ends off the asparagus.  Cut a diagonal slice off the bottom of each asparagus spear then slice each spear as thinly as you can (see result in photo).  Add salt and pepper to the lemon juice and mix.  Whisk in the olive oil to emulsify.  Add the sliced asparagus and the pea shoots.  Serve.