When asparagus season finally commences in Britain (from about the end of April to the end of June), we can often feel a bit guilty for giving those first spears anything but the simplest treatment: simmered until just done, drained and served, that’s it. Radical innovation, you might think, is best saved for the off-season, when the only available asparagus has journeyed thousands of miles and looks it. But variety doesn’t have to be complicated – there are lots of ways to liven up a serving of asparagus without overwhelming it. I don’t know exactly how many but, as usual, I stopped at 17.
Arguably even the simplest treatments aren’t foolproof – the tapered shape of an asparagus spear presents an intractable culinary problem: even after trimming, the fat bottoms are always going to take longer to cook than the pointy tips. For years I resorted to standing them up in the water for a few minutes, so the bottoms got some extra immersion, but they alway fell over as soon as I let go. One day I thought: leave the rubber band on. Then I thought: maybe that’s what the rubber band is for?
Hollandaise may be the traditional accompaniment, but Thomasina Miers serves simmered asparagus with an anchoiade, a garlicky sauce of anchovies and walnuts that will never go as wrong as hollandaise sometimes can. For a simple lunch, or a slightly complicated breakfast, try your simmered asparagus with a poached egg and polenta, as Bruce Poole does.
You can, of course, grill asparagus spears on a barbecue, but this will require your unwavering attention, otherwise they will burn or fall through the bars, or both. Roasting asparagus in the oven is just as elemental, and a little more forgiving. For an extra touch of elegance, Yotam Ottolenghi layers lightly roasted asparagus – cooked for about eight minutes – with pine nuts and sourdough crumbs, topped with a basil and lemon dressing.
If your kitchen facilities are limited, you can microwave your asparagus in a damp paper towel – some people prefer it. It is even possible, if less than desirable, to cook asparagus in a toaster. I should know – I once almost set fire to my kitchen trying. I include my improvised recipe here not as a recommendation, but as a warning from history: if you’re going to try this at home, don’t do it the way I did it.
Fresh, in-season asparagus doesn’t need to be cooked at all. For this basic ribboned asparagus salad it is combined with cucumber, tomatoes and an avocado dressing. Once you’ve got the hang of ribboning – it’s basically peeling, except the peelings are the bits you keep – you can also try Nigel Slater’s asparagus, carrot and samphire salad. Even steaming the samphire is optional here.
Pasta with asparagus is another option without too much fuss involved. In this recipe for asparagus and lemon spaghetti with peas, for example, the stalks are added to the spaghetti water for the last three minutes of cooking; when they’re done, it’s done. Ottolenghi’s asparagus cannelloni employs fresh lasagne sheets, into which the spears are rolled along with a coriander pesto, before being smothered in a yoghurt béchamel and baked for 35 minutes. He also does a mean asparagus bread pudding, if you can get your head round that.
Nuno Mendes’s asparagus migas calls for both green and white asparagus spears, some of which are sliced into rounds to become part of the migas: a sort of bread-and-greens paste which is fried into a patty, over which the remaining stalks are served. Even if you can’t find any white asparagus, it’s still worth trying. Meera Sodha, meanwhile, combines asparagus with cashews to make a classic Keralan thoran.
And here, for your consideration, not one, but two asparagus tarts. The first, from Margot Henderson, is simplicity itself: asparagus, goat’s cheese, eggs and creme fraiche, poured into a cooked pastry shell and baked until set. The second, from Anna Jones, adds roasted cherry tomatoes, leeks, rosemary and mustard to the mix.
A seasonal asparagus surplus provides a good opportunity to make soup, and soup is a good way to make use of the woody parts of the asparagus stalk you would otherwise discard; even stumps that are too tough to puree can go in the stock. In her perfect version of asparagus soup, thickened with a little flour and cream, Felicity Cloake suggests you might even want to hold back the tender tips to use in another recipe where they will get more notice.
If you can imagine asparagus season extending into cold soup season, Tom Hunt’s chilled almond and asparagus soup is made with asparagus ends only. You might have to save them up to get enough.
Lastly, sushi is one possible use for your reserved asparagus tips. As Jamie Oliver shows, it’s not too difficult to make as long as you can source all the right stuff, although the few times I have made sushi I quickly grew impatient with the process and ended up just shoving the constituent ingredients in my mouth in turn. And you know what? That works too.