Asparagus is my favourite vegetable. It has been highly prized since Roman times, and it is peak asparagus season at the moment. I had my first taste of the new season’s crop a couple of weeks ago when I was on holiday in Sussex, and I have consumed quite a lot since then!
The season here in the UK is brief: just 6 short weeks in late spring. In my mind, asparagus is one of the vegetables that tastes noticeably different when locally grown and freshly picked. The flavour is sweeter, fresher and nuttier than the varieties that are flown in all year round. I think it is well worth the wait each year and am taking every opportunity to savour and enjoy it whilst it is available.
As with any vegetable, buy and eat asparagus as soon as possible after picking to enjoy the freshest flavour and juiciest texture. But if you do end up with more than you can eat, trim away the woody ends as you would with fresh flowers and pop the stems in a vase or jug of cold water. Either store in a cool place or put in the fridge. This way, the stems will stay fresh for at least 48 hours. You can freeze it, but I really don’t like the softer texture of frozen asparagus once it is cooked – I think it over-cooks too easily – however it makes the perfect base for soup-making or blending with mayonnaise or very ripe avocado for a dip, so it is worth freezing a few stems for this purpose alone.
I like my asparagus best when it has been griddled or roasted. Thin spears cook very quickly in a hot, lightly oiled frying pan or on a griddle pan brushed with oil. Larger stems are good for roasting – brush with oil and spread out on a lined baking tray, and bake in a moderately hot oven for 10-15 minutes. If you prefer to use water, try to cook the stems so that the tips stay out of the water. You can buy tall upright asparagus steamers if you’re a big asparagus fan – these enable you to stand the stems upright in bunches – only the stalks are in the water whilst the tops only cook in the steam. Otherwise, steaming, covered, over a saucepan of water is the next best way – keep the cooking water to add to your recipe as stock if you’re making a soup or risotto.
Here’s my recipe for sushi rice bars topped with asparagus tips – a delicious light snack for a spring lunch. If you need to trim away lots of stalk to make this recipe, keep the leftovers, and either use them to make stock or soup, or slice them into thin rounds and add to a stir fry.
- 150g sushi rice
- 25g piece root ginger
- 1 large clove garlic
- 1 tsp vegetable oil
- 2 tbsp toasted sesame seeds
- 3 tbsp freshly chopped chives
- 4 tsp mirin, sweet sherry or white balsamic vinegar (Agredolce)
- ¼ tsp salt
- 12 fine asparagus spears
- Fresh chives and flowers to garnish
1. Double line a shallow 18cm square cake tin with cling film so that the film overhangs the sides. Rinse the rice in cold running water. Put in a small saucepan and pour over 200ml cold water. Bring to the boil, reduce to a simmer, cover and cook for 10 minutes undisturbed. Turn off the heat and leave to stand with the lid on for 20 minutes. It is worth checking the manufacturer’s cooking instructions for the particular rice you are using as timings and water quantities may vary between brands.
2. Meanwhile, peel the ginger and garlic and chop finely. Heat the vegetable oil in a small frying pan and gently fry for 2-3 minutes until softened but not browned. Leave aside.
3. When the rice is ready, scrape it into a heat-proof bowl and fork through to break up the grains. Add the ginger and garlic along with the seeds, chives, wine, sherry or vinegar and salt. Mix well.
4. Pile into the prepared tin, press down with the back of a spoon and leave to cool completely, then fold over the cling film and chill for 2 hours until firm.
5. Bring a saucepan of water to the boil. Trim the asparagus to approx. 8cm lengths and place in a steaming compartment over the water. Cover and cook for 2-3 minutes until just tender – insert the tip of a sharp knife into the end of the stalk is a good way to check it is perfectly tender. Cool under cold running water, then drain, place on damp kitchen paper and chill until required.
6. To serve, remove the rice cake from the tin and remove the cling film. Place on a board, cut into 12 bars and arrange asparagus on top of each bar. If liked, wrap a length of chive stem around each piece and arrange on a serving platter. Sprinkle with chive flowers, and serve with wasabi paste if liked.