There is no vegetable that heralds the arrival of spring quite like asparagus. Charles Lamb believed it inspired gentle thoughts. British writer Hector Hugh Munro (better known by his pen name Saki) was a little more forceful: “You needn't tell me that a man who doesn't love oysters and asparagus and good wines has got a soul, or a stomach either. He's simply got the instinct for being unhappy highly developed.”
Whether it’s green, white (which is grown under earth and thus deprived sunshine and therefore the chlorophyll) or purple (which, with prolonged cooking, will actually turn green), the sweet, earthy flavour of asparagus marries beautifully with scallops, is divine wrapped in prosciutto and barbecued and makes an indulgent breakfast served with a poached egg and hollandaise.
Look for asparagus with tight, well-formed heads and avoid any that have slimy tips. Check the base of the stems to make sure they are not split or wrinkled. Be aware of the miles this vegetable has travelled: the closer to home and fresher, the better.
Before cooking asparagus, snap off the woody end by holding the spear in the middle and bend the bottom until it finds its natural snapping point. Discard the woody ends, or use them in a stock.
The ideal vessel for cooking asparagus is a fish kettle, however a large frying pan will do the job admirably. Place green and purple asparagus in gently boiling water for 2 - 5 minutes, or until a knife passes through the thickest part of the base without resistance (white spears tend to be a little thicker and may need a little longer). The spears should maintain their vibrant colour and not droop. Do not refresh in cold water (it will affect the flavour), simply drain on a clean tea towel.
Wrap the bottoms of the asparagus in damp paper towel and store asparagus in a vegetable bag in the crisper drawer of your fridge for a couple of days only.
Asparagus loves -
lemon, prosciutto, parmesan, eggs, chicken, butter, olive oil, salt, fish, hollandaise sauce, scallops, prawns, mayonnaise
Dip cooked asparagus spears into a soft-boiled egg instead of toast soldiers.
Blanch asparagus spears in boiling water for one minute, dry them on a clean tea-towel and then wrap each spear in prosciutto. Barbecue until the prosciutto is crisp and has charred slightly. This is also amazing dipped into a boiled egg.
Cook asparagus spears and serve as a simple canapé with a little shaved parmesan on top or lemon and butter melted together and poured over them (do this at the last minute as the lemon will discolour the asparagus).
Serve cooked asparagus with a soft-poached egg on top and some fresh sourdough breadcrumbs that you have gently fried in butter.
To poach the eggs - The key to poached eggs is using the freshest eggs you can find. As an egg ages, the white becomes thinner and the yolk becomes flatter. Thus the fresher the egg, the more it will hold its shape.
Bring to the boil 1.5 litres (medium saucepan) of water with a teaspoon of white vinegar. When the water is just beginning to boil swirl the water with your spoon to create a whirlpool. Crack your egg into a cup or small bowl, and when the water is spinning gently slip the egg into the centre (this helps it form a round shape). Wait 10 seconds before re-swirling and slipping in the next egg (limiting it to two eggs at a time). 2-3 minutes will produce soft yolks. Remove eggs with a slotted spoon and rest the slotted spoon on a clean tea towel to absorb the moisture. Remove debris in the pan before poaching more eggs.
Elizabeth David suggests plunging the whole egg (before you crack it) into boiling water for 10 seconds to help the external egg white set a little and thus help the egg retain its shape.