Whether steamed and eaten hot with lashings of melted butter or dotted through a fresh-tasting risotto, asparagus is the darling of spring vegetables for Tom Parker Bowles.
‘Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May.’ Never were Shakespeare’s words more apt, as warm H. E. Bates bucolia is replaced by chill J. G. Ballard dystopia. This should be the month of hope, happiness and soft breezes, when, in Thomas Malory’s eternal words, ‘every lusty heart beginneth to blossom’ and the meagre months are put behind us. When sweet buds explode into bloom, green shoots become succulent stems and all thoughts turn to summer.
However, at the time of writing, a plague stalks the land, a viral enemy against which isolation is the only defence. The irony being that Covid-19 is as natural as a babbling brook. Like the Old Testament God, Nature gives and she takes away.
Still, the only thing to do is to embrace the positive, if you can, and look to small mercies. In this case, asparagus. It is one of the true joys of English spring and summer, a taste of childhood that never ceases to thrill. I rather took it for granted back then, assuming that everyone’s father would bring the spears in, fresh from their sandy soil, ready for their mother to cook.
“When the sun rose, his pan would already be on the boil. No more than five seconds wasted between cutting and cooking”
The distance between kitchen garden and simmering pot was about 55 yards — they were as fresh as could possibly be. Well, not quite as fresh as those eaten by the man who would camp out next to his crop, the night before they were ready to harvest. When the sun rose, his pan would already be on the boil. No more than five seconds wasted between cutting and cooking. A little extreme, perhaps, but speed is of the essence. Within moments of being sliced, all those lovely sugars start turning to dreary starch, the vegetable (part of the lily family, to be precise), turning from hero to zero in a relatively short time. When buying, look for tight buds and firm stems.
As to eating, the first few dozen are always either steamed and eaten hot with melted butter or cold with a sharp vinaigrette. Then, once that initial seasonal urge is sated, I start grilling them on the barbecue, glistening with olive oil or baked in bric pastry (available online), as the great Jeremy Lee does at Quo Vadis. Or did, and hopefully will do again.
To find fresh asparagus for delivery, visit www.britishasparagus.com or try your local farm shop. Spears are, of course, still growing. Last year, 98% of pickers were from outside the UK. We desperately miss them. If you can help, sign up to the Government campaign Pick for Britain (www.pickforbritain.org.uk).
This recipe comes from The River Cafe Cookbook, one of my favourite tomes from one of my very favourite restaurants. I dream of being back on that warm terrace, as the Thames winds brownly by, with good friends and cold wine and fistfuls of zucchini fritti.
If you don’t have any white vermouth, white wine will suffice. And don’t panic if the risotto is not ready in 15 minutes — mine usually takes at least half an hour.
- 225g (8oz) asparagus
- 225g peas
- 225g green beans
- 225g courgette
- Sea salt
- Fresh ground black pepper
- 1 litre chicken stock
- 1 medium red onion, peeled and finely chopped
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- 300g risotto rice
- 75ml extra dry white vermouth
- 100g butter
- 175g Parmesan, freshly grated
Cut off the asparagus tips, then chop spears and beans into 1in pieces. Pod the peas. Cut the courgette (that’s zucchini, if you’re reading this from over the Atlantic) lengthways into four, and slice to the same size as the green beans.
Take half the vegetables, and blanch in plenty of boiling salted water.
Heat the chicken stock and season.
In a large, heavy-bottomed saucepan, cook the onion in the olive oil until soft, not brown, for about 10 minutes. Add the rice and stir for two minutes to coat completely with oil. Add enough hot stock to cover the rice and cook gently, adding more stock as it is absorbed. Season with salt and pepper. After about 10 minutes, add the uncooked vegetables, stir and add more stock. Cook for a further five minutes.
Pour in the vermouth and stir, then add the blanched vegetables, the butter and the cheese, taking care not to overstir. The risotto should be moist and creamy. Check the seasoning and serve with more grated Parmesan.
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