“Picture the man at the dinner party. It might be a woman. That can happen. But it’s usually a man. Some smooth-faced Tristram or Tarquin, some bearded Xander or Xavier. His fork pauses, two asparagus tips trembling on its prongs, as, with one eyebrow hiked towards his glistening hairline, he drawls, “I think what we’re experiencing here is a Wittgensteinian difficulty with languages….”
Thomas W Hodgkinson, co-author, How to Sound Cultured
Hodgkinson and Van den Burgh wrote their entertaining book on the basis of the need to know who Wittenstein… or any number of others superciliously quoted was or were. But perhaps the essential question really here is why does that kind of person always wield asparagus?
There’s quite a bit of cultural snobbery about asparagus – white or green, fat or thin, perfect time-season, exact-correct cooking method, right saucepan etc. But it’s easily countered – white and fat incidentally, both supremely flavourless. This is a vegetable which really doesn’t have to be treated with kid gloves – reverently in May with a skilled hollandaise. It’s not precious and precocious. It can be added to salads and pastas, quiches and crudités, or simply served as an accompaniment. Not available (I’m surprised)? Simply substitute with broccolini.
And in case you’re still wondering, Wittgenstein’s big insight was that there are some things which can’t be helpfully spoken of in words. He must have been a food writer.
The method outlined below is a VERY quick and easy way of cooking asparagus. And that’s useful because there are so many ways of using asparagus:
- It’s good served with slivers of parmesan and roughly chopped chervil.
- We regularly have them for breakfast with a poached egg (when feeling holy – less carbohydrate than the preferred Marmite toast).
- You can turn it into a simple salad by serving with a vinaigrette and some shredded salad leaves.
- You can make it into a smart starter by wrapping four or five spears together with a slice of parma ham.
- Classically, with hollandaise sauce, or less classically, with wasabi hollandaise sauce
- Or, idea from Ella Woodward, you can add some pine nuts for the last couple of minutes of roasting and then dress with a tahini-based dressing – couple of tablespoons each of nut oil, olive oil, and tahini; teaspoon each of honey and cider vinegar; smoked salt and a few crushed pink peppercorns.
- Restaurateur Mark Sargeant (The Strand Dining Rooms) loves asparagus and suggests says he likes it with Asian flavours and will serve it with duck breast, bok choi, tenderstem broccoli, spring onion, chilli, ginger and soy sauce. He points out that it also goes well with sea trout.
- Max Falkowitz suggests drizzling with lemon, garlic, Indonesian long pepper and dried coriander seeds.
for four as an accompaniment, or for six, wrapped in ham, as a starter
- 500g/1 lb fine asparagus (not the huge treetrunk stuff)
- ½ lemon – juice and zest of
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- 50g/2 oz/one-fifth of a pack of butter
- smoked salt and freshly ground pepper
- preheat the oven to 210ºC
- the asparagus does a magic thing! if you bend it firmly, holding it with one hand as the base of the stem and with the other a few inches up it will snap in a rather satisfying way at exactly the point between edible and horrid and woody. Do this with all the spears and lay out in a shallow roasting tin.
- pour over/sprinkle over/dot the other ingredients over
- roast for about seven minutes for thin, baby asparagus spears, and up to 12 for thicker spears. If they are wrapped in ham they will take much longer – more than 20 minutes for thick spears.