One of my favourite seasonal eating moments is the arrival of fresh British asparagus spears. I’m privileged to have it growing in my garden, so it was a really joyful moment this year when it first started to pop up - to me it means that spring is well and truly underway. Asparagus is such a delicacy because its growing season here in the UK lasts just 8 weeks, so let's celebrate its arrival as being one of the first vegetables to come into season and enjoy it at its very best.
If you can’t eat it right away, asparagus is best stored standing upright in a small glass of water in the fridge. Something I found out recently is that the smaller, thinner stems can actually be a little tougher than the larger ones, although this can vary. Snapping off the ends instead of trimming them with a knife can help you get rid of the woodiest part of the stems (although you can always use these trimmings finely sliced in another dish or thrown into some stock to cut down on waste).
So what about the health benefits? A portion of 10-12 spears would give you three-quarters of your vitamin C for the day, along with a hefty dose of vitamin A, K and folic acid, as well as some B vitamins, vitamin E and a whole range of minerals (such as manganese, phosphorus, potassium etc.), fibre and protein (1).
As well as these essential nutrients, Asparagus is also a rich source of other healthy phytonutrients, particularly the antioxidants rutin (a flavonoid) and glutathione (a biothiol). Rutin has been found in some studies to be associated with helping inflammatory bowel conditions as well as strengthening fragile blood vessel walls (important in high blood pressure) (2). Glutathione is an important antioxidant. It directly protects cells against damaging free oxygen radicals, as well as helping the action of detoxifying enzymes such as glutathione peroxidase (2).
So, all-in-all, a very impressive nutrient profile. Steaming is the best cooking method to help preserve this wonderful nutritional content better than cooking by boiling or baking (2). Do take a look at my recipes below for some new ways to enjoy these healthy little green spears whilst at their best.
I love to have a big bowl of chilled gazpacho in my fridge through the warmer months. The core ingredients change as the season progresses as gazpacho is not just reserved for tomatoes - right now it's all about asparagus. This one is a perfect go-to meal on the run but equally refreshing and zingy to serve to guests (and so pretty, don't you think?)."
- 400g asparagus
- 1 avocado
- 50 ml coconut milk
- 1 small cucumber or a 60g piece
- 20 g basil
- 10g mint
- small clove of garlic
- pinch of salt
- juice of 1 lime
- 700 ml ice cold water
- handful of grapes, halved for garnish - optional
1. Remove the woody ends of the asparagus and blanch for 1-2 minutes depending on thickness, refresh in ice cold water. Trim 20 tips and save for garnish.
2. Blend the remaining asparagus with the rest of the ingredients with half of the water until creamy and smooth.
3. Add the remaining water, adjusting if necessary to get the texture, it should be thick and creamy, put still pourable.
4. Chill for a few hours in the fridge before serving with the asparagus tips and a scattering of grapes.
Asparagus and Crab Tarts
A grain or gluten free life doesn’t have to mean no pastry. These delicious asparagus tarts require a little effort to make but they are a luxurious lunch or starter with a simple salad.
For the Pastry (makes 6 tarts)
- 250g almond flour
- 1/2 tsp fine salt
- 125g coconut oil, hard not melted.
- 1 egg
- 5-6 tbsp cold water
- 220g bunch asparagus
- 1 egg
- 3 egg yolks
- a pinch of salt and pepper
- a grind of nutmeg
- 160ml coconut cream
- 100g of picked crab meat, brown and white
- hand full of basil leaves, finely chopped
1. Combine the almond flour with the salt, make a well in the centre. Add the egg and coconut oil into the well and rub into the flour with your fingertips until you have a fine breadcrumb texture. Mix in the water a few tbsp at a time until a dough forms. Wrap this the dough in cling film and chill for at least 30 minutes.
2. Grease 6 x individual tart tins (10cm), with coconut oil. Pre heat oven to 200/180fan.
3. Roll out the pastry to about 2mm thick, this easier to do between two large sheets of cling film. Cut 6 x 12cm circles, using a pastry cutter, or small plate and push into your tins. Use scraps to patch cracks or tears. It’s malleable so push it into shape if necessary and make sure the corners are not to thick, pinch up the sides and trim of any excess. Prick the bottom with a fork and bake for 10 -12 minutes until golden brown and dried out. Allow to cool while you make the filling.
4. Lower the oven to 180/160fan.
5. Blanch the asparagus spears for 1 minute and refresh in ice cold water, lay out on a tea towel to dry. Cut the tips off and save for the tops, slice the rest of the spears.
6. Mix the eggs, seasoning and coconut cream together then stir in the crabmeat, basil and sliced asparagus bottoms. Divide evenly between the tart cases and place a few asparagus tips on top of each tart.
7. Bake for 20-25 minutes, until the middle of the tart is just set. Leave to stand for 2-3 minutes before removing from tins. Delicious served warm or cold.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
If you have any leftover filling it makes for a wonderful soufflé, cooked alongside the tarts. If you were looking for a quick version of this dish you could leave out the pastry cases all together and serve 6 soufflés with blanched asparagus tips on the the side.
Grilled Asparagus with Fish
This is such a fast and easy way to cook whole fish and gives it that smoky taste of charcoal grills from Greek Islands faraway. Chunky British asparagus is the perfect food under the hot grill - served with lashings of lemon and olive oil, this really couldn’t be more enjoyable.
- 1 medium sea bass or sea bream 250-280g
- half a bunch of chunky British asparagus
- good olive oil
- 1 lemon
- salt and pepper
- Pre heat your grill to hot, around 220 and place an oven rack on the highest shelf. Grease a baking try or line with tin foil.
1. Rinse the fish and pat dry. Slash the fleshiest part of each side three times, quite deeply. Rub the fish on both sides with salt, including pushing some into the slashes. Lay out on the baking tray with the asparagus, drizzle fish and asparagus with olive oil.
2. Grill for about 3-4 minutes then turn the fish over and grill for another 3-4 minutes. This will create crackle and smoke as the fish chars and the skin blackens. If your grill only stays hot when the door is open, keep it open. The fish is cooked when you insert a knife into the fleshy part of the body and the flesh is white rather than opaque and pinky.
3. Serve with plenty of lemon juice and good olive oil, Greek style.
(1) NDL/FNIC food composition database home page (2011) Available at: http://ndb.nal.usda.gov (Accessed: 3 April 2016).
(2) Drinkwater, J.M., Tsao, R., Liu, R., Defelice, C. and Wolyn, D.J. (2015) ‘Effects of cooking on rutin and glutathione concentrations and antioxidant activity of green asparagus (asparagus officinalis) spears’,Journal of Functional Foods, 12, pp. 342–353. doi: 10.1016/j.jff.2014.11.013.