CITIZENS! We have reached another of those bell-ringing, fanfare-blaring, party-popper-popping moments in the food calendar.
Yes, after almost a year, British asparagus season has begun!
April 23 marked the start of the fleeting time when we can indulge in one of the country’s finest vegetables, asparagus.
And we only have until June 24 to enjoy these miraculous spears before bidding adieu for another year.
I’ve bored you all stiff with my adherence to seasonality before, but I do honestly feel that this is what makes these ingredients so special – the excitement of anticipation, followed by the bountiful supply and naughty overindulgence, and then a wistful sadness as the stocks dwindle, and the season closes for another year, leaving only memories and a few crumbs on the table.
It is as it should be; just as the wild garlic is now starting to become woody and weaker in flavour, and how the British strawberries have only the briefest of periods in the spotlight in which to shine with their immense depth of flavour.
I’m not saying that we shouldn’t splurge occasionally on something that’s not absolutely bang in season, but I really do think that Uruguayan strawberries on the Christmas supermarket shelves are a bridge too far.
Similarly, Mexican-grown asparagus, airfreighted across the globe, is bound to taste pale in comparison with home-grown or locally-sourced spears, pulled from the rich soils of Yorkshire, Lincolnshire or Kent.
So let’s exercise a bit of common sense, and revel in the abundance of these versatile veggies while we can, then look forward to their next time round on the calendar.
Asparagus, despite having a delicate and unique flavour, does marry up well with some surprisingly strong flavours, hence its popularity in chicken and mushroom pies, or with shellfish.
And fishy is our theme this week, as I thought I’d keep things relatively simple and make a nice summery tart of British asparagus flavoured with crème fraîche, a little tarragon and some meaty flakes of oak-roast salmon.
This Scottish delicacy, also known as Bradan Rost, is one of my favourite salmon preparations, twinning as it does the peatiness of the coastal smokehouse with the texture and flavour of the firm-fleshed fish.
It’s not as oily or slippery as smoked salmon, and not as pale and delicate as plain poached salmon, but somewhere in between – deeply savoury, nicely chewy, and perfect with all manner of ingredients. Asparagus is no exception; it sits beautifully with the delicately smoky fish, and is lifted by the addition of a little aniseed flavour from the fresh tarragon.
Bind all this up in a light custard made with fresh eggs and crème fraîche, encased in a rich buttery pastry case and you have a real beauty of a lunch dish, or a light supper.
I twin this with a salad made with mainly bitter leaves, for maximum contrast, dressed with a little pink grapefruit to add a final zingy note to the whole dish.
You could, of course, make the dish a bit more substantial with a dollop of creamed potato instead of the salad, or experiment with different herbs. Perhaps even a hint of cheese to melt in the custard? As ever, it’s up to you, dear readers.
Now let’s unwrap those emerald-hued beauties, shall we? Aprons on!
For the pastry:
250g plain flour, plus a little extra for dusting
110g butter, cut into small cubes and chilled
1 fresh, free-range egg, beaten
1 egg yolk
A pinch of Maldon salt
For the filling:
200ml crème fraîche
3 fresh, free-range eggs
250g oak roast salmon, left in large flakes
250g asparagus spears, cut into inch-long pieces and blanched
The zest and juice of a lemon
A handful of fresh tarragon
A few handfuls bitter salad leaves (frisée, watercress, chicory, radicchio)
1 pink grapefruit
A little extra-virgin olive oil
A 9” tart tin or a couple of smaller ones, ideally loose-bottomed
First, the pastry case. Rub the butter and a good pinch of salt into the flour by hand or whizz in a food processor, until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs.
Whisk the egg lightly with a tablespoon of the chilled water, and add to the flour, bringing it together to a soft dough.
Try not to overwork the pastry – you may need to add a little more chilled water to get the dough consistency you’re happy with. Wrap in clingfilm and chill until you’re ready to roll out the tart base.
Heat the oven to 200ºC / Gas 6. Roll the pastry out to about a ½ cm thickness and carefully line the tart tin.
Cut out a disc of greaseproof paper about 3 inches wider in diameter than the tart case, and screw it up into a tiny ball, then carefully unwrap it again – this allows it to get into the ‘corners’ better.
Fill the paper with baking beans and bake the tart case for 20 minutes at 200ºC.
The pastry should have set firm, and be lightly golden. Remove the paper and bake the pastry a little longer to dry the base. Reduce the oven to 180ºC / Gas 4.
In a pan of salted water, blanch the asparagus pieces for 30 seconds, and refresh in iced water. Pat them dry. Now for the filling; whisk the eggs into the crème fraîche and gently fold in the asparagus and salmon flakes, along with a splash of lemon juice, the lemon zest, a tablespoon of freshly-chopped tarragon and a little S&P.
Gently tip into the pastry case and bake for 20-25 minutes, or until the custard has just set with a nice wobble.
For the garnish, peel and segment the grapefruit, reserving the juice.
Whisk the juice with a little olive oil and S&P to make a light dressing.
Toss the salad leaves in this just before serving, along with the grapefruit segments and a slice of warm tart.