recipe

Credit: EARL CARTER

Spring has sprung with crispy asparagus spears

Asparagus signifies the end of winter. Each year, it is one of the first spring vegetables to hit the restaurant kitchen. Local farmers Jo and Trevor Courtney of Bridge Farm in Koo Wee Rup keep us updated on when the first spears will be ready. As soon as they appear at the door, they are on the menu. It’s a relatively short season for local asparagus, so we like to be prepared. 

Our asparagus is picked in the afternoon and delivered the next morning. There is nothing better than the taste of new season asparagus straight from the earth.

The intense taste of asparagus, with its sweetness and crunch, is a rare combination. Quick and simple to cook – one to two minutes in a large pot of boiling water, the thickness of the stem will dictate the exact cooking time – asparagus is also a constant at home for a few months each spring. 

Blanched and refreshed, the asparagus’s unique texture and flavour is preserved and can keep well in the fridge for a few hours before serving. Sliced and tossed through a salad, asparagus brings a lot to the party. Citrus also pairs beautifully with it, and a simple mustard dressing with a squeeze of lemon juice added, along with the zest from an orange, works wonders. 

Grilling asparagus intensifies the flavour and brings a lovely charred quality to your dish. The young spears cook quickly on the grill, while thicker spears will benefit from being blanched in a pot of boiling water for a minute beforehand.  

Asparagus’s traditional bedfellows are eggs, cheese (particularly parmesan) and some crustaceans; prawns, scallops and crabmeat all work wonderfully well. A piece of toasted or grilled sourdough bread spread generously with goat’s curd and topped with thinly sliced raw tender asparagus dressed with lemon juice, olive oil, salt and black pepper makes a delicious lunch. 

These classic accompaniments to asparagus are delicious, but because of its sweet flavour profile, it also carries subtle spices well. Freshly blanched spears tossed with a little olive oil and dukkah pair nicely with a poached egg for breakfast.

Towards the end of the season, the larger, thicker stalks develop a tough outer skin and sometimes require peeling before cooking. An everyday vegetable peeler is good for this. Once peeled, proceed with cooking the asparagus as you would normally.

Boiled asparagus with brown butter sauce

Serves 4 as an entree or 6 as a snack

– 120g butter

– 1 egg

– 4½ tbsp brown butter

– ½ tbsp chopped tarragon leaves 

– lemon juice

– salt

– 3 bunches thick-stemmed asparagus

First, make your brown butter by gently melting the butter in a small saucepan. Once it’s melted, the butter will foam and then subside, as the water is evaporated. Swirl the pan gently as the butter browns. Once it is a deep golden colour, take the pan off the heat and carefully pour the butter through a layer of muslin or a very fine sieve, to remove the browned milk solids. It is now ready to use.

Bring a saucepan of hot water to the boil. Lower the egg into the simmering water and cook for five minutes, then place the egg in cold water to stop it cooking further. After a few minutes, remove it from the water and leave at room temperature until ready to use. 

Peel the egg and place in a bowl. Whisk the egg to break it up – the yolk should still be runny.

Whisk the warm (not hot) brown butter into the egg little by little until it is all incorporated into a smooth sauce with a mayonnaise-like consistency. Stir through the tarragon and season the sauce with salt to taste and a good squeeze of lemon juice.

Keep this sauce in a warm, but not hot, place until you are ready to serve it.

Trim the woody ends off the asparagus and drop them into a large pot of boiling, salted water. Cook for two minutes until the asparagus is just barely cooked through. Refresh in iced water, drain and let them sit on a tea towel for a few minutes to dry. The asparagus could also be served warm.

Serve the asparagus alongside a bowl of the sauce for dipping. Alternatively, lie the asparagus spears gracefully on individual plates and spoon the sauce over the spears. 

Grilled asparagus salad with toasted almonds, herbs and parmesan

Serves 4

Fine asparagus works best for this recipe as the hot grill quickly blisters the skin, leaving the asparagus crunchy. 

– 2 tbsp butter 

– 2 tbsp flaked almonds

– 3 bunches fine asparagus

– 1 tbsp olive oil 

– 1 tbsp chopped chives

– 1 tbsp chopped parsley

– 2 tbsp chervil leaves

– 25g parmesan, shaved

– salt

– black pepper

– lemon juice 

Melt the butter in a small pan and gently cook the flaked almonds, stirring until they are golden. Drain from the butter and set aside to cool on a piece of paper towel. Season with a pinch of salt.

Trim the woody ends from the asparagus. Light your barbecue or preheat a cast-iron grill pan. 

Brush the asparagus with a few drops of oil and grill over high heat, turning, until the asparagus has started to blister (about three to five minutes depending how hot your grill is).

Toss the asparagus with the herbs, olive oil and parmesan and season the salad with a sprinkle of salt, black pepper and lemon juice, to taste. Finally, sprinkle the toasted almonds over the salad before serving.

Wine pairing:

2009 Tyrrells Stevens Single Vineyard semillon, Hunter Valley ($35) – Leanne Altman, sommelier, Supernormal 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 4, 2014 as "Crispy spears". Subscribe here.

Andrew McConnell
is the executive chef and co-owner of Cutler & Co and Cumulus Inc.