Back in May 2017, I wrote a recipe for organic asparagus for Coleshill Organics’ customers. And sitting down this morning to write a couple more, it seemed even more miraculous than usual that the seasons keep on doing what they do. The asparagus season has begun; the wild garlic is now in flower; the first hazy blue of bluebells appears in the woods and the sunlight reaches them because the leaves on the trees above haven’t yet quite opened out. But they will in a day or two and you will look at them and say – when did that happen? – as if the trees did it when they knew no one would be looking.

And perhaps this spring, because of the time we are in and all the uncertainties it is bringing us, the seasons feel particularly precious. Even with climate change, they are a constant. Like the tides of a sea and the rising and setting of the sun, they will not betray us. They will always be there for us to measure our lives by, to be comforted by.  And it is by the seasons that we will continue to dig and sow and weed and water and harvest.

I say ‘we’, but I should say Coleshill Organics – and all the other farmers and growers throughout the land. Never before have we felt so grateful for them. Because even if our window-sills are uncharacteristically crammed with egg boxes of beginning-to-show little seedlings and we have turned a formerly neglected bit of the garden into raised beds (I wonder how many deliveries in my Bristol street alone of compost have there been?), this is really just lockdown therapy.

Asparagus with poached egg, smoked bacon and pecorino

Thanking our farmers and growers

The serious business of growing crops and raising animals to feed people is not ours but the role of people like Sonia at Coleshill Organics. Recent research from the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission found that THREE MILLION people have tried a veg box scheme for the first time or are buying direct-from-farm both to get what we need and to support the local community since the COVID-19 outbreak. Let’s hope we will have the wit and wisdom to continue to support them – along with all the good cheesemakers and real bakeries out there – when this time of COVID-19 has passed.

And, of course, let’s also hope that we will continue to grow food in our own gardens. And cook at home in a way we never did before; all this sour-dough bread-making and freezer clearing going on. While I think about it, here’s some good advice:

Assemble all the jars of dried herbs and spices you have from every cupboard and every shelf onto the kitchen table. Open each jar and smell the contents. If it doesn’t smell distinctive and aromatic in a pleasing way (go with your intuition, don’t deliberate too much), the chances are it is stale and will bring little to anything you might want to cook with it. Throw it away – the contents into compost and the jars into recycling.

Cooking asparagus: the basics

So – back to your organic asparagus. Here’s how to cook it:

  1. Put a large saucepan of really salted (1tsp per litre) water on to boil.
  2. Snap the asparagus stalks close to the base to remove their woody ends. Using a swivel peeler, finely peel the skin from the bottom third of the stalks. This might seem old-fashioned but the pale, green-white flesh underneath is beautiful.
  3. Drop in the asparagus into the boiling water and cook until just tender – this only takes between 45 seconds and a minute and a half. But don’t undercook them either: take one out after the 45 seconds and cut through the stalk with a sharp knife; it should be just firm, not at all crunchy.

So what does asparagus go well with?

Brilliantly well with eggs. I have done them with gulls eggs (boiled like a hen’s egg) and celery salt. Gulls eggs are in season, too, but don’t go scaling those rocks to try and get any unless you have a license–and you almost certainly don’t!

Gulls eggs have an intensely rich flavour and velvety texture. They go with organic asparagus the way a dischord resolves into harmony.

Or you could semi-soft boil a couple of hen’s eggs (simmer for 8 minutes) and grate or chop the eggs.

organic asparagus with grated egg

Grate them over the top of a plate of just-cooked asparagus, add salt, pepper, chives (chives is the only herb which I think really goes with organic asparagus), lemon juice and olive oil.

Or cold as a salad, simply cut into lengths and tossed together with toasted and coarsely chopped hazelnuts and watercress and a lemony vinaigrette.

With mushrooms: I have done grilled organic asparagus (blanched first just for 20 seconds) with St Georges mushrooms, those firm white and pale golden brown nutty flavoured wild mushrooms which grow around the edges of beech woods between the end of March and May. But you can use any mushrooms.

And with Parma ham: I used to do a slightly naff but quite pleasing canape which involves spreading a creamy goats cheese over a thin slice of prosciutto as you would buttering a slice of bread, adding a few twists of black pepper and then laying the asparagus on top and rolling the ham around it like a swiss roll. Then you cut them into short lengths and eat them – ideally with a glass of dry sherry.

With cold roast chicken or salmon and a fresh lemony herb mayonnaise. Use tarragon, chives and chervil – and yes, I know I said only chives go with organic asparagus — this is a good example of when a culinary rule should be broken!

Ingredients for the vinegarette…

And with new potatoes. Undoubtedly one of the best combinations of all, whether just with butter or in a vinaigrette of finely chopped red onion and capers and chives.

For this lovely salad, select the smallest potatoes, scrub them well and cook them á point; by which I mean almost al dente. Have a bowl of the vinaigrette ready: 1 small red onion or shallot finely chopped, a generous splash of red wine vinegar or the juice of a lemon, some chopped chives, 3 tsp capers and bound with enough olive oil (or walnut or hazelnut oil but as with those ancient spices, the nut oil you have at the back of your cupboard may well be rancid so taste it first!!) to make an emulsion. Cut the asparagus into 2cm lengths and add them to the dressing. And when the potatoes are cooked, drain them well and add them to the bowl and mix together gently.

And an asparagus tart (see below) made with rough puff pastry is a truly delicious thing. But I think this dish is best done towards the end of the season when the excitement of having asparagus in your kitchen has worn off a little – and when the price has come down a little, too.

I think that will do. Below are two proper recipes:

Organic asparagus with poached egg, smoked bacon and pecorino

This recipe is for four people.

Ingredients

  • 16 spears of English asparagus, snapped off at that particular point in the stem
  • 4 as fresh as possible eggs
  • 4 rashers of good smoked streaky bacon, sliced into little strips
  • A handful of good pecorino, grated
  • A small bunch of chives
  • Juice of half a lemon
  • Good olive oil

Method

Have everything ready – including the pan to poach the eggs in ready simmering.

Plunge the asparagus into fast boiling salted water and cook until when you bite into the end of one stalk it is not quite soft but not al dente either. This will take about 1 to 2 minutes. Remove from the heat, drain carefully (so you don’t damage the tips) and plunge into cold water for a few seconds to arrest any further cooking. Pat dry and leave to one side in a warm place.

Fry the bacon, not too crispy, just right. Drain off any excess fat.

Put the asparagus spears onto 4 warm plates; lined up, close together.

Poach the eggs.

Place a poached egg onto the middle of each line-up of asparagus spears.

Scatter first the bacon, then the pecorino then the chives over the eggs and asparagus.

A squidge of lemon, a drizzle of oil and a twist of pepper.

Organic asparagus tart

Ingredients

1 shortcrust pastry tart case

200g asparagus, cut in 2cm pieces

150g Parmesan, grated

3 eggs

150ml milk

90ml double cream

Method

Preheat oven to 180C, gas mark 4. Roll out the pastry to the thickness of a 2-pound coin and carefully line a loose-bottomed tart case. Line this with baking parchment and add baking beans then blind bake until the case is lightly cooked.

Whisk together the eggs, milk, cream and parmesan with a little salt (the Parmesan is already very salty) and plenty of black pepper. Set aside.

Blanch the asparagus briefly in boiling water until just tender then plunge into ice-cold water. Drain and pat dry.

Spread asparagus neatly but not obsessively over the base of the tart and put in the oven.

With the oven shelf halfway out, pour in the eggs and cream mixture; slowly push in the shelf and close the door.

Bake in the oven for 20-25min until just set in the middle but still wobbles when shaken.

Leave to cool and set for 15min.

Slice into wedges and serve.

Barny Haughton is a chef, restaurateur, cookery school teacher and Eco Food pioneer. He has run three award-winning restaurants in Bristol over the last 25 years (Rocinantes, Quartier Vert and Bordeaux Quay).

Barny is best known for his work at Square Food Foundation, Bristol’s Cookery School & Community Kitchen, where he is Director and Head Teacher, teaching people from all walks of life to cook good food.

Barny Haughton