Savour columnist Richard Allen – executive chef at Rockliffe Hall’s The Orangery – talks asparagus
Harvested by hand when just the right height, British asparagus can grow up to 10 cm per day and is a true labour of love. Legend has it that this little green gem can help promote a healthy libido, which is all very well, but for me the real beauty of this Ferrari of vegetables is its versatility.
This year, due to a cool crisp spring, the Asparagus season is seeing a bumper crop so there’s even more reason to feature it on your menus or treat the family to something spectacular for lunch, dinner or even as a special guest as part of your picnic at your favourite Sunday spot.
The season runs from around St George’s Day to mid-June and has been cultivated for at least 2,000 years since the ancient Greeks, and even the Egyptians, feasted on this spring beauty. Originally, like most vegetables, asparagus was found in the wild and by selective breeding and growing techniques it has become the much plumper, taller version with a more edible flesh, that we all eat and enjoy today.
White asparagus is actually the same plant that is covered with around six inches of soil to deprive it of sunlight and prevent it from going green.
As a young chef, boxes and boxes of asparagus were plonked in front of me to be pruned, peeled, shaped and turned into everything from soups to salsas, or blanched to serve with anything from beef to sea bass and everything in between.
Here at The Orangery restaurant, it’s great to see my young chefs going through the same emotions as I did all those years ago as they are presented with the previous day’s harvest.
Although you can do so, so much with asparagus, I think simplicity is key and to get the best out of them I feel giving them a light trim and just showing them to some buttery, salted, boiling water really is the one.
Try this recipe with asparagus and harissa for dipping.
300g deseeded chilies, chopped
3 roasted, peeled and chopped red peppers
3 teaspoons of dry roasted cumin seeds
3 teaspoons of dry roasted fennel seeds
3 teaspoons of dry roasted coriander seeds
4 diced red onions
1 bulb crushed garlic
200ml tomato juice
Salt and black pepper to taste
Juice of 1 lime
½ litre of good quality olive oil
Place all ingredients, apart from the tomato juice, lime and salt, in a thick based pan and cook until all of the moisture has gone and the ingredient’s start to stick to the pan, add the tomato and reduce until dry.
Remove the pan from the heat and cool. When cold, place the mixture into a food processor and very slowly, while the blender is going, add olive oil until the mixture emulsifies and creates a thick dressing consistency, then finally add a squeeze of lime to taste. Remove to a container, refrigerate and keep until needed.
Cook 1 bunch of peeled asparagus in boiling, salted water for 20 seconds then place in ice water. Strain, pat dry and set to one side To serve, place the cooked asparagus in a dry frying pan on medium heat and warm gently turning after about 1 minute. Season with salt and a drizzle of olive oil.
Wine notes from Daniel Jonberger, head sommelier at Rockliffe Hall:
To complement Richard Allen’s fantastic dish, I have chosen a wine from one of my favourite wine makers. Luis Seabra, Granito Cru, Alvarinho, Monçaoe Melagço, DOP, 2015. A wine created with minimal intervention. All natural and with a production of only 7,000 bottles. It is a complex wine that offers caramelised orange and peach on the nose, but then a fantastic freshness greets you on the palate!
With a small, tangy remembrance of orange, it leads you on a journey of fresh flavours that is deep and at the same time very fresh. A touch of gooseberry lingers. This is still a young wine, so I anticipate a more lovely complexity in years to come.