23 April 2015
The English asparagus season is eagerly anticipated by foodies across the country, and we're no different here at Priory Farm. The first of the season's crop is arriving in the farm shop now, and we're full of ideas for what to do with it.
But why are the green and purple spears of English asparagus quite so highly prized? Perhaps it's because they're packed full of vitamins A, B, C and E, fibre, folic acid, iron and potassium which can help to boost the immune system, detox the body, prevent cancer and heart disease and keep hair, skin and nails healthy. The ancient Greeks believed asparagus offered a cure for toothache, and the Romans protected their patches in high-walled courtyards. Then there are its purported aphrodisiac properties ... It's no surprise that we're so keen to enjoy as much asparagus as we can during its short season.
Asparagus has only been cultivated in England for about 500 years, but in that time we've got pretty good at growing it, despite its reputation for being notoriously difficult to cultivate. While we might grumble about our changeable English climate, it makes for the perfect habitat for asparagus, which needs to grow slowly to develop its full flavours and tender textures. The spears deteriorate quickly after picking, which is why imported asparagus that has to fly from as far away as Peru isn't a patch on the home-grown variety. In fact, English asparagus is so good that we don't export any of it because we eat it all ourselves!
One of the best ways to cook asparagus is to tie several spears together and stand them in a few inches of boiling water, so the stems cook through while the tender tips steam without becoming overdone. You can also roast or barbecue asparagus in around 10 minutes, stir-fry in a hot pan for a few minutes or sauté in butter, and young, fine, tender spears can be eaten raw in salads. As English asparagus is usually grown in a sandy soil, wash it thoroughly first and trim or peel any white ends, and if you won't be eating it straight away store it in a jug of water in the fridge to keep it in tip-top condition.
Many chefs will extol the virtues of enjoying English asparagus simply – Thomasina Miers likes hers in beurre noir, Valentine Warner votes for hollandaise sauce and Sarah Raven says it's magnificent however it's cooked. However, asparagus is a versatile vegetable and its unmistakeable flavour pairs beautifully with eggs, bacon, ham or chorizo, cheeses, chilli, cream, seafood, herbs, capers and anchovies. You can eat it as a side or as a main, for breakfast, lunch or dinner, with pasta, in risotto and even on pizza. And if you're trying to get the kids to eat more veg, try dipping lightly steamed asparagus spears in the runny yolk of a soft-boiled egg – delicious and just a little bit messy.
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