As I promised last week, we’re still cooking with asparagus. It’s here for such a short time, we might as well make the most of it.
I read an amazing fact about asparagus this week, which I’d hitherto been unaware of – apparently, in the right conditions, asparagus spears can grow up to 10 inches in 24 hours!
What an amazing plant, deserving of our respect and love.
I hope you enjoyed last week’s quiche.
I think it’s one of the nicest things to do with the crisp, clean flavours of the asparagus spear. As I mentioned, asparagus has a unique flavour, and it’s best not to mask this ethereal taste with lots of other things.
However, you can treat asparagus spears quite roughly, cooking-wise, providing you let it dominate.
And in this spirit, we’re going to head to Italy for a wonderful recipe that blends the asparagus with a few traditional accompaniments: Reggiano Parmesan cheese, with its nutty crunch; silky, salty ham, and a little drizzle of reduced balsamic vinegar, to add a piquant touch. We finish the dish off with some lightly-toasted pine-nuts.
Simplicity itself, but definitely an early-summer classic, and brilliant at barbecues. This recipe requires a barbecue or chargrill ideally, but you can simply grill the asparagus should you need to.
My mum does a very nice version of this with some of those squishy, piquant sunblush tomatoes, which works very well, too.
The balsamic reduction is a cheap and easy way to (almost) replicate the classic 80- and 100-year old cask-aged vinegars from Modena. There’s clearly a difference in taste, but this way you save yourself tens of pounds, and you still have a nice, piquant syrup for drizzling. Just store it in a squeezy bottle until you need it. It’s great on steaks.
Oh, one more thing... Do remember to freeze the asparagus trimmings. If you make a soup, these will blend very well, and give a rich deep flavour. Try them in a straight asparagus cream soup, or mix with creamy poultry or fish soups to send the flavours into the stratosphere!
Recipe: Asparagus with ham, Parmesan, pinenuts and balsamic reduction:
20 plump fresh asparagus stalks, trimmed
8 slices Parma, Serrano or Bayonne ham
250ml basic balsamic vinegar
100-150g Reggiano Parmesan (or Grana Padano at a pinch)
2 tbsps pinenuts
A little extra-virgin olive oil
Firstly, let’s make the syrup. This will keep, out of the fridge, for weeks. In a stainless or non-stick pan, reduce the vinegar over as gentle a heat as possible (we use our hot-lamps for this – it takes all day, but you don’t have to watch it like a hawk!) until it’s reduced by about a quarter. Pour into your squeezy bottle or jar, and reserve.
In a dry frying pan, heat the pinenuts, shaking them all the time, until they are golden brown. Tip them into a bowl to stop the cooking process, and reserve.
Make sure the ham is open, and up to room temperature. All the flavour comes out when cured hams are allowed to warm up a little.
Using a grater or a shaver, make curls of the Parmesan cheese, and keep in a cool place until required.
To serve, heat up your chargrill pan, or BBQ, or grill. Brush the asparagus spears with a little olive oil and chargrill for a few minutes until they are nicely marked, but still a little crunchy. Arrange them in a bowl or plate with a curl or two of Parmesan, some ham, a sprinkle of pinenuts and a drizzle of balsamic syrup. Season the dish with a little Maldon salt if required, and serve immediately.