Saturday, 16 June 2012

Spears of Aspiration

True lovers of food; whether they be cooks, chefs or rapturous eaters often blur the line between stomach and loins.  A sublime morsel can be a tickle to make one swoon; a great meal, foreplay.  If aphrodisiacs do indeed exist, the lofty asparagus spear is a true royal with its delicate points d’amour.  Elegant, dainty, short-lived and of a hue that evokes fertility, freshness and surely jealousy from lowlier vegetables, asparagus is king right down to its rooty crown.
Like many a splendored thing gone squandered, asparagus is subjected to much abuse.  Let’s run through some rules of respect and points of interest.

1) A foreign spear is not so dear
-No point. Delight in the British asparagus season that runs from April-June. Asparagus should be a treat gorged upon for these three fleeting months.  The key to proper product is the short time from picked to plate.  Look for moistness at the cut, tight buds and a firm stalk.  The sugars quickly turn to flavourless starch when left to sit.  Hypermarket asparagus from Peru or Thailand in December is a cardinal sin.  White asparagus is indeed amazing, but only when at source.  Otherwise an overpriced delicacy travelled too far.

2) A kept woman
-If you acquire some recently picked spears but aren’t able to cook them straight away, the best manner in which to protect is to carefully snip that oft too tight rubber band, stand them in a glass or container with an inch of water and then refrigerate.  Don’t pack them too tightly together and always mind those delicate tips.

3) To peel or not to peel
-A matter of finesse.  Does peeling asparagus make it taste better? Arguably, but then you are losing some of the texture contrast.  Does it make the asparagus more attractive?  Well, we’re talking about the difference between fishnets and ultra sheer.  It’s all in the eye of the beholder.  I would say; peel thick, au naturale for thin.  On the subject of asparagus trimming, I was always told, ‘The more expensive the restaurant, the closer to the tip the asparagus is snipped’.  As long as all those off-cuts are saved for a nice soup, it matters not a whit.

4) The cooking

-Not a lot and very quickly, or not at all.  Find the subtle, yet natural breaking point, snap and trim straight.  Discard the woody bits as they aren’t really fit for anything bar a possible addition to vegetable stock.  In a perfect world you would then boil in a special asparagus steam/boiler that blanches upright whilst saving the delicate tips from actually being submerged in the water.  Us peasants can make do by boiling a large amount of heavily salted water and blanching them for 3-5 minutes, depending on thickness.  Or steaming a little longer.  Serve immediately or refresh in ice water for later warming or grilling.  Raw asparagus can be lovely when sliced ultra thin and married with an acidic emulsion.

5) The pairing
-Well, what doesn’t go with asparagus? A subtle flavour that lifts, augments and adds a touch of class.  Seasonality dictates lightness but the options are endless. Born for butter, quality oils, hollandaise, Parmesan, mayonnaise, mustard dressings, cured ham, crab, eggs, pickled in a Bloody Mary etc. etc. I love Hugh’s idea of using them as soldiers for a butter enriched soft boiled egg.  Add a few drops of truffle oil and phwoar...

Here we have a few very simple staples with one of my signature dishes.  A bit involved but well worth the effort and shouting spring/early summer with every step.

Lamb Sweetbreads, Asparagus, Wild Garlic Gnocchi & Morels

Ingredients for 4:

4-500gm Lamb sweetbreads
Milk to cover
1 Bay leaf
2tbsp Water
2tbsp Unsalted butter
5tbsp All purpose flour
1tsp Dijon mustard
1-2tbsp Finely chopped wild garlic
3tbsp Grated gruyere
1 Large egg
12 Medium size morels
8 Asparagus spears
Butter for basting
Lemon juice
Sunflower oil
Flour to dust


1)   Soak the sweetbreads overnight in a container of cold water.
2)   Drain and place in a saucepan with the bay leaf and cover with milk.  
3)   Bring the saucepan to a boil and simmer gently for five minutes.
4)   Drain and immediately plunge into ice water until completely cooled.
5)   Peel off the membrane and fat from the sweetbreads and lay out on a plate covered with cling film.
6)   Press under a heavy weight, for a couple hours.  Refrigerate.
7)   Set up a mixer with the paddle attachment.
8)   Combine the water, butter and a pinch of salt in a medium saucepan and bring to simmer.
9)   Reduce the heat, add all the flour at once and stir rapidly with a wooden spoon until the dough pulls away from the sides of the pan.  The dough should be glossy, smooth and moist but not sticking to the bottom of the pan.
10) Continue to stir for about five minutes, keeping the heat low to avoid colouring.  When enough moisture has evaporated, steam will rise from the dough.
11) Immediately transfer the dough to the mixing bowl.
12) Add the mustard, wild garlic and a couple pinches of salt.
13) Mix for a few seconds to incorporate the ingredients, then add the cheese.
14) With the mixer on the lowest speed, add the egg and beat until fully incorporated.
15) Place the dough in a piping bag and let it rest for 30 minutes.
16) Bring a large pot of salted water to the boil and keep at a simmer.
17) With one hand, evenly and slowly squeeze out 2cm nuggets of the gnocchi whilst slicing them off with a small knife into the simmering water with the other.  This task should be done rapidly so that the gnocchi all cook at relatively the same time.  Cook for 2-3 minutes, then plunge into ice water.  You should get 40 gnocchi.
18) Drain and reserve.
19) Season and dust the sweetbreads with a little flour.  Fry on a high heat in a little sunflower oil, basting with a knob of frothing butter until browned. Add the gnocchi and morels and toss, toss until browned and cooked, adding more butter and seasoning if needed.
20) Simultaneously in a large saucepan of salted boiling water, blanch the asparagus for 3-4 minutes depending on thickness.
21) Scalding your fingers, rough cut the asparagus and add to the sweetbreads pan.  Crank up the heat and drizzle a little lemon juice as the butter yearns to burn.  A quick beurre noisette.

To serve:
Arrange the sweetbreads, gnocchi, asparagus and morels divided amongst four plates. Top with spoonfuls of hot beurre noisette and a few choice leaves of watercress or chickweed if handy.  A glass of prosecco would not go amiss with such a luxurious dish.  Some finesse required but a rustic presentation devoid of pretension.

“...asparagus, tinged with ultramarine and rosy pink which ran from their heads, finely stippled in mauve and azure...transforms my chamber-pot into a flask of perfume."
-Marcel Proust

An edited version of this article appeared in Devon Life Magazine, May 2012

No comments:

Post a Comment