Photo: ©Random House
All About Asparagus
Spring pilaf of asparagus, fava beans, and mint
BY MAGAZINE COO MARGO MAIER-MOUL
His food is understated, handcrafted home cooking that is easy to accomplish and without a trace of what he affectionately calls ‘celebrity cheffery’. He is not fond of fussy food and prefers simple suppers made with care and thought.
My eyes lit up when I saw the veggie fresh cover of Nigel Slater’s new book, Tender: A Cook and His Vegetable Patch. It’s Spring and tender is exactly what my palate wants: tender shoots, tender beans, tender stalks, green green, green!
Slater writes with intelligence, wit, and an utterly charming lack of pretension. I’ve been a fan for years. Friends gave me his Appetite as a birthday gift, a book on homestyle food that feels more like a conversation with a favorite neighbor whose recipes are a joy to read and cook. I love the improvisational style and the fact the recipes aren’t strictly given. Naturally I’m ready to revel in the 400 vegetable recipes in Tender.
What follows is from a chapter devoted to asparagus, happily just coming into season!
Excerpted from Tender by Nigel Slater. Copyright © 2011 by Nigel Slater
There is a moment in late April, somewhere between the end of the plum blossom and the height of the apple, just as the Holly Blue butterflies start to appear in the garden, that the early asparagus turns up at the farmers’ market. Tied in bunches of just six or ten, these first green and mauve spears of Asparagus officinalis are sometimes presented in a burlap-lined wicker basket, as if to endorse their fragility and their expense. Their points tightly closed, a faint, gray bloom of youth still apparent on their stems, it would take a will stronger than mine not to buy.
The short, six-week season starts in late April, and once it is up and running, the price drops and the bundles get fatter. I could have it every day—in a salad with cold salmon, stirred into a frugal rice pilaf, chopped and stirred into the custard filling of a tart, or grilled and served with lemon juice and grated pecorino. I might get tired of its side effects — it contains methyl mercaptan, which makes most people’s pee stink — but its flavor is the strongest sign yet that summer has started.
Asparagus in the kitchen
There are two types of asparagus of interest, three if you count the fat “jumbo” spears, whose flavor is rarely as impressive as their size: the thin “sprue,” finer than a pencil, and the thicker spears for picking up with our fingers. Sprue is my favorite size for working into a salad with samphire, melted butter, and grated lemon. Being supple, it tangles elegantly round your fork.
The thicker spears are most tender at their flowering point, less so at the thick end where the stalk has been cut from the plant. You can often eat the entire spear, and a tough end is no real hardship—it acts as something to hold while we suck butter off the tastiest bits. Some people prefer to trim their “grass,” whittling the white end to a point with a paring knife or peeler.
Get the spears to the pot as quickly as you can. They lose their moisture and sweetness by the hour. If you have to store them (I often buy three bunches at once at the Sunday farmers’ market), stand them in a bowl of water like a bunch of flowers.
Once we have tired of boiled asparagus and melted butter, the spears make a deeply herbaceous soup or a mild, rather soporific tart and marry well with pancetta or soft-boiled eggs. A few in a salad will make it feel extravagant, even if the only other ingredients are new potatoes, oil, lemon juice, and parsley. My all-time favorite asparagus lunch is one where a small, parchment-colored soft cheese is allowed to melt lazily over freshly boiled spears. The warm cheese oozing from its bloomy crust makes an impromptu sauce.
A pilaf of asparagus, fava beans, and mint
Asparagus is something you feel the need to gorge on, rather than finding the odd bit lurking almost apologetically in a salad or main course. The exceptions are a risotto—for which you will find a recipe in Appetite—and a simple rice pilaf. The gentle flavor of asparagus doesn’t take well to spices, but a little cinnamon or cardamom used in a buttery pilaf offers a mild, though warmly seasoned base for when we have only a small number of spears at our disposal.
enough for 2
fava beans, shelled – a couple of handfuls
thin asparagus spears – 12
white basmati rice – 2/3 cup (120g)
butter – 4 tablespoons (50g)
bay leaves – 3
green cardamom pods – 6, very lightly crushed
black peppercorns – 6
a cinnamon stick
cloves – 2 or 3, but no more
cumin seeds – a small pinch
thyme – a couple of sprigs
green onions – 4 thin ones
parsley – 3 or 4 sprigs
to accompany the pilaf
chopped mint – 2 tablespoons
olive oil – 2 tablespoons
yogurt – 3/4 cup (200g)
Cook the fava beans in deep, lightly salted boiling water for four minutes, until almost tender, then drain. Trim the asparagus and cut it into short lengths. Boil or steam for three minutes, then drain.Wash the rice three times in cold water, moving the grains around with your fingers. Cover with warm water, add a teaspoon of salt, and set aside for a good hour.
Melt the butter in a saucepan, then add the bay leaves, cardamom pods, peppercorns, cinnamon stick, cloves, cumin seeds, and sprigs of thyme. Stir them in the butter for a minute or two, until the fragrance wafts up. Drain the rice and add it to the warmed spices. Cover with about 1/4 inch (1cm) of water and bring to a boil. Season with salt, cover, and decrease the heat to simmer. Finely slice the green onions. Chop the parsley.
After five minutes, remove the lid and gently fold in the asparagus, fava beans, green onions, and parsley. Replace the lid and continue cooking for five or six minutes, until the rice is tender but has some bite to it. All the water should have been absorbed. Leave, with the lid on but the heat off, for two or three minutes. Remove the lid, add a tablespoon of butter if you wish, check the seasoning, and fluff gently with a fork. Serve with the yogurt sauce below.
To accompany the pilaf
Stir 2 tablespoons of chopped mint, a little salt, and 2 tablespoons of olive oil into 3/4 cup (200g) thick, but not strained, yogurt. You could add a small clove of crushed garlic too. Spoon over the pilaf at the table.
Excerpted from Tender by Nigel Slater. Copyright © 2011 by Nigel Slater. Excerpted by permission of Ten Speed Press, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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© 2011, The Magazine of Yoga, LLC.