WELL, it’s been lovely weather recently and I must say my herb patch is now looking resplendent in the sunshine.
Already there are a few plants that have decided the frosty weather is over and made a run for it.
The oregano and marjoram is already unfurling in great lime-green swathes, the mew (my very favourite wild plant of which I have a few ‘domesticated’ sprigs) is bushy and bouncy and the sorrel is so happy it’s practically bolted already. I’m going to pair that with a leg of lamb this weekend.
Lamb and sorrel are perhaps one of the best combinations around at this time of year. The unique delicate flavour of spring lamb is perfect with the citrussy hit that sorrel gives. Later in the year is when the older, tastier lamb starts to nuzzle up to the more dominant flavours of garlic, rosemary and thyme.
This lovely spate of unseasonably warm weather we’ve had of late has precipitated one of the most joyous yet short-lived food seasons we have in the UK.
Yes, folks, it’s officially time to get excited about asparagus. British asparagus, mind, not the tasteless green sticks from Mexico or Guatemala. No, this is the time of year when our very own treasure trove of iridescent, emerald spears shoot forth from the fertile soils of Dorset, Yorkshire, Lincolnshire and Kent (among many others, of course) and beg to be snipped.
Asparagus is a wonderful thing. It has a flavour all its own, definitely vegetable-y, but with a strangely delicate pungency. It’s a weird thing to pin down. Upon crunching a spear, one definitely knows what it is, yet the flavour is somehow ethereal, ghostly and fleeting. It breezes across the palate. Hard to describe. Clean and crisp. And as such, we must be careful what we do with our asparagus. No chilli dipping sauces for this chap and I’d even be careful about letting garlic get in on the action.
No, asparagus does its best work with the paler, equally light flavours. Mushrooms, white meat, seafood, eggs, butter. These are the friends of the asparagus spear, just nudging everything the right way without being brusque or overbearing.
So this week, we’re making a slightly re-mixed version of the absolute classic asparagus dish – steamed spears with a poached egg. To this we’re adding a couple of outside influences.
Eggs and bread go so well together, so I thought maybe we’d sprinkle the asparagus with a liberal handful of crunchy fried breadcrumbs and instead of a classic Hollandaise (something I always like with my asparagus) I thought we’d have a go at the classic Greek sauce, avgolemono.
It’s a very rough equivalent of the classic French sauce, adding a rich, lemony creaminess but crucially without the weight of any butter. With the fat from the crumbs and the richness of the egg, this dish will benefit from a little restraint. Still a very simple plateful, then, and incredibly easy to prepare.
It will make a delightful lunch or wonderful starter. And remember, the season runs out very soon, so get your skates on and enjoy this fleeting, exquisite vegetable until it disappears underground for another year.
Asparagus With Avgolemono & Crunchy Herb Crumbs
For the Crumbs
A few handfuls roughly- grated fresh white breadcrumbs
A good splash of Extra-Virgin olive oil
a little butter
For the Avgolemono
The juice and zest of 1 large unwaxed lemon
250ml weak vegetable stock (I use Marigold bouillon powder)
3 fresh, free-range eggs
Plenty of fresh British asparagus (5-7 spears per person for a first course), kitchen roll for draining
1 fresh, free-range egg per person
A few fresh herbs for garnish
First, prepare the crumbs. Set a few sheets of kitchen roll on a plate, ready to tip the crumbs onto. Heat the olive oil in the pan, and when it’s nice and hot, add the crumbs and a knob of butter. The crumbs should begin to go crisp and golden. Before they take on too much colour, tip them onto the kitchen roll, spread out gently and allow them to drain completely.
To make the avgolemono, heat the stock gently in a pan. As it’s coming to a simmer, separate the eggs, and whisk the whites to a soft peak, then add the yolks and whisk until incorporated. Add the lemon juice and zest to the stock, and gently whisk in the egg. When the mixture is smooth and fluffy, remove from the heat, season to taste and keep warm until required. It will refrigerate and revive, but not be quite so fluffy.
To assemble the dish, trim the asparagus (remembering to keep the trimmings for soup) and soft-poach the eggs. Steam the asparagus spears until just cooked, then lay onto your serving plates in a loose pile. Place an egg in the middle of the ‘nest’ and drizzle with the avgolemono sauce. Finally, strew a few warm fried crumbs over the dish, and garnish with a few leaves of fresh herbs. I used salad burnet and mew, but regular herbs such as tarragon, chervil or even parsley would be perfect.