Yippee, Spring is here. Which means that the first of the fresh asparagus is starting to hit the shops. Don’t wait, eat as much as you can as the season is short.
Originating in the Eastern Mediterranean, with a distinctive earthy, leafy flavour, asparagus grows wild in some parts of Europe. Greeks and Romans used it as a medicine; it apparently cured bee stings, eases toothache and restores eyesight. Asparagus also has a reputation for being a ‘real stinker’ and a source of endless debate at dinner parties! In some countries people prefer to eat white asparagus which has been grown out of the sun, but Kiwis like it green and there is little, if any, white grown here although purple asparagus is becoming increasingly available.
The North Island’s temperate climate is ideal for the production of sweet tender asparagus spears, the alluvial strip between the Tararua Ranges and the Tasman Sea north of Wellington providing perfect growing conditions. There are over two hundred commercial growers in New Zealand, producing 5,000 tonnes of asparagus every year. Harvested August through to January, peaking in September, about one fifth supplies the local export and the rest is exported fresh (mainly to Japan) or processed into canned, bottled or frozen product.
Fresh asparagus should not be rubbery and should ‘squeak’ when the spears are rubbed together. Choose straight firm green stems with trimmed ends. Asparagus has a high water content and should be stored in a refrigerator, preferably with the ends wrapped in wet paper towels or in plastic bags to prevent dehydration.
Asparagus is an excellent source of antioxidants, especially phenols, carotenoids and vitamin C. One of the best natural sources of folate, asparagus is also a source of fibre and small amounts of many other vitamins and minerals. If the asparagus is thin and fresh it can be used raw in a salad, otherwise blanching it will produce the best results. Purple asparagus is often eaten raw as it is sweeter and more tender than green. Lemon juice will help retain the purple colour and it should be cooked quickly. For maximum flavour, asparagus should not be overcooked and should be tender but still slightly crisp. It can be steamed, stir-fried, microwaved or boiled. Asparagus is also great on the barbeque or served with a simple sauce or dressing. It can also be used in tarts, soups, salads and other dishes.
Chargrilled Asparagus with Easy Hollandaise
This is what the French do best; celebrate one perfect ingredient eaten at its prime and in season. Take a delicate flavour like asparagus and enhance it with the richness of the Hollandaise.
Serves 4 as an entrée or 6 as a vegetable
2 bunches of fresh asparagus
Easy Hollandaise – Makes 600ml
2 tablespoons wine vinegar
4 tablespoons lemon juice
6 large egg yolks
A large pinch of salt
6 rounded tablespoons fresh chives, snipped
- Melt butter slowly in a small saucepan.
- Place wine vinegar and lemon juice in another pan and bring to the boil.
- Meanwhile chargrill or barbeque asparagus for 3 to 4 minutes. Set aside and keep warm.
- Blend egg yolks in a food processor or liquidiser, then – with the motor still running – gradually add the hot lemon and vinegar.
- When the butter reaches the boil, trickle this in very slowly, with motor still running until it is all added and the sauce is thickened.
- Stir in snipped chives.
- Serve immediately with asparagus. (Will also keep for up to 2 days if covered with glad wrap and refrigerated.)
This is time for happy wines, and the happiest of them all is the Pinot Gris. The Birdman at Bird Wines has sneakily managed to make one that is a beautiful peachy colour while still being dry, an incredibly difficult combination to achieve.