I’ve already eaten them in a restaurant this season but the few stems I bought sat forgotten in the refrigerator because I found a perky bundle of Spanish grown green asparagus at Lidl (€2.59 and then this week €2.oo vs €19.00 / kg at a local market ). Normally, I would be joining ranks with all the many supporters of slow food (I never, never, never eat asparagus from Chile say).
In this case however, I defer to my esteemed chef friends who exercise common sense. They buy the best produce they can afford in season. Sometimes it can’t be as local as we would wish it to be, in the case of Germany because they genuinely seem to prefer the labour intensive white stems.
I never boil green asparagus, never.
What I do is I get my pan hot (not smoking) add a slick of sunflower oil (2 tablespoons worth) and put in the asparagus, making sure that the pan is large enough that each spear has contact with the pan from head to bottom, if not slice them in half. Add salt and lots of pepper. Then I turn the heat down to medium high and let the asparagus brown, turning the spears around with tongs to make sure they get a good coverage of brown marks. The skin on the outside will start to pucker a little, like the skin on your finger tips if you were to linger in the bath for too long.
It takes a while, around 15 minutes. If you’ve never done it before, there is a risk of burning them (look out for smoking pans) or being too timid with the heat so nothing happens. Get the heat balance right and the results are sensational. Really. The asparagus becomes sweet, there are darkened parts of hyper concentrated flavour and they are so juicy on the inside and firm on the outside (as opposed to wet over all from being simmered).
Honestly? I’ve only cooked asparagus this way for the last three years. I probably did it one time because I couldn’t be bothered to wait for that much water to come to the boil and then I was hooked. Last year in May, I came across an asparagus stand at the Maryelebone market, it had an enormous line and it turned out they were handing pan-fried samples of their new seasons asparagus. All the punters were amazed that a) you could cook asparagus that way and b) it could taste so good.
I served my first batch with polenta and poached eggs. Instead of water for the polenta, I used milk that I steeped with rosemary and garlic for flavouring (just heat the milk in a saucepan, not letting it simmer then discard the aromatics, strain into a clean pan and whisk in the polenta according to the packet instructions). If poached eggs scare you, fry a couple of eggs instead, all you are looking for here are runny yolks.
Equally good. Boil up some potatoes. Make a gremolata by finely chopping a handful of parsley leaves, a clove of garlic and mixing the two with the zest of one lemon. (A little note here. Chop the garlic as finely as you can, don’t squash it in a garlic press. This way, you will get a tiny cube of garlic every now and then and it will be spunky and peppery and probably make your day instead of large slushy chunk of garlic.) Make a lemon olive oil dressing by whisking 3 parts oil into one part lemon add a good dose of Maldon salt, toss the steaming potatoes in the gremolata and lemon dressing. Taste, add salt and pepper. Pan fried asparagus goes on top. Poached eggs on top of that.
Serve it to a girlfriend, sip a glass of crisp white wine and hope for a good summer ahead.