Cornish Food Guide: Cornish Asparagus
“… asparagus, tinged with ultramarine and rosy pink which ran from their heads, finely stippled in mauve and azure…transforms my chamber-pot into a flask of perfume.” – Marcel Proust
One of the many great things about living in Cornwall is the consistently early arrival of spring, which brings with it the first harvests of British, better still Cornish, asparagus. This year in particular, many farmers have reported that their crops have been ready to harvest even earlier than usual – thought to be a result of early winter frosts and a warmer than normal spring.
Cornish asparagus is particularly tasty, grown in salty, mineral-rich coastal soil that adds to the flavour of the asparagus as it grows. And the fresher it is, the better! Which is why at The Headland we buy our Cornish asparagus from local producers to the journey from field to plate can take place in as little as one day.
1) Get it before it’s gone!
The Cornish asparagus season that runs from late March-June. Asparagus should be a treat to be gorged upon for these three or four fleeting months. The key to good asparagus is a short time from picking to plate. Look for moistness at the cut, tight buds and a firm stalk. The sugars turn quickly to flavourless starch when left to sit. White asparagus is indeed amazing, but usually best at source. Often just an overpriced delicacy that has travelled too far.
2) To peel or not to peel
A matter of finesse. Does peeling asparagus make it taste better? Arguably, but then you are losing some of the texture contrast. Does it make the asparagus more attractive? Potentially, depending on who you ask. I would say; peel thick, au naturale for thin. On the subject of asparagus trimming, I was always told, ‘The more expensive the restaurant, the closer to the tip the asparagus is snipped’. As long as all those off-cuts are saved for a nice soup, it matters not.
4) Cook me quick
Not a lot and very quickly, or not at all. Find the subtle, yet natural breaking point of the spear, snap and trim straight. Discard the woody bits as they aren’t really fit for anything bar a possible addition to vegetable stock. In a perfect world you would then boil in a special asparagus steam/boiler that blanches upright whilst saving the delicate tips from being submerged in the water. However we can make do by boiling a large amount of heavily salted water and blanching them for 3-5 minutes, depending on thickness. Or if steaming…a little longer. Serve immediately with lashings of fresh butter or quality oil or refresh in ice water for later warming or grilling. Raw asparagus can be lovely when sliced ultra-thin and married with an acidic emulsion.
5) The pairing
Well, what doesn’t go with asparagus? A subtle flavour that lifts, augments and adds a touch of class. Seasonality dictates lightness but the options are endless. Born for butter, quality oils, hollandaise, Parmesan, mayonnaise, mustard dressings, cured ham, crab, eggs, pickled in a Bloody Mary etc. I love Hugh’s idea of using them as soldiers for a butter enriched soft boiled egg. Add a few drops of truffle oil and wow…
If you want to try an incredibly flavoursome asparagus dish, try this recipe, one of my signature Cornish asparagus dishes. A bit involved but well worth the effort and shouting spring with every step.
Seasonal Asparagus Recipe
Spring Lamb Sweetbreads, Asparagus, Wild Garlic Gnocchi & Morels
Ingredients for 4:
4-500gm Lamb sweetbreads
Milk to cover
1 Bay leaf
2tbsp Unsalted butter
5tbsp All purpose flour
1tsp Dijon mustard
1-2tbsp Finely chopped wild garlic
3tbsp Grated gruyere
1 Large egg
12 Medium size morels
8 Asparagus spears
Butter for basting
Flour to dust
1) Soak the sweetbreads overnight in a container of cold water.
2) Drain and place in a saucepan with the bay leaf and cover with milk.
3) Bring the saucepan to a boil and simmer gently for five minutes.
4) Drain and immediately plunge into ice water until completely cooled.
5) Peel off the membrane and fat from the sweetbreads and lay out on a plate covered with cling film.
6) Press under a heavy weight, for a couple hours. Refrigerate.
7) Set up a mixer with the paddle attachment.
8) Combine the water, butter and a pinch of salt in a medium saucepan and bring to simmer.
9) Reduce the heat, add all the flour at once and stir rapidly with a wooden spoon until the dough pulls away from the sides of the pan. The dough should be glossy, smooth and moist but not sticking to the bottom of the pan.
10) Continue to stir for about five minutes, keeping the heat low to avoid colouring. When enough moisture has evaporated, steam will rise from the dough.
11) Immediately transfer the dough to the mixing bowl.
12) Add the mustard, wild garlic and a couple pinches of salt.
13) Mix for a few seconds to incorporate the ingredients, then add the cheese.
14) With the mixer on the lowest speed, add the egg and beat until fully incorporated.
15) Place the dough in a piping bag and let it rest for 30 minutes.
16) Bring a large pot of salted water to the boil and keep at a simmer.
17) With one hand, evenly and slowly squeeze out 2cm nuggets of the gnocchi whilst slicing them off with a small knife into the simmering water with the other. This task should be done rapidly so that the gnocchi all cook at relatively the same time. Cook for 2-3 minutes, then plunge into ice water. You should get 40 gnocchi.
18) Drain and reserve.
19) Season and dust the sweetbreads with a little flour. Fry on a high heat in a little sunflower oil, basting with a knob of frothing butter until browned. Add the gnocchi and morels and toss, toss until browned and cooked, adding more butter and seasoning if needed.
20) Simultaneously in a large saucepan of salted boiling water, blanch the asparagus for 3-4 minutes depending on thickness.
21) Scalding your fingers, rough cut the asparagus and add to the sweetbreads pan. Crank up the heat and drizzle a little lemon juice as the butter yearns to burn. A quick beurre noisette.
Arrange the sweetbreads, gnocchi, asparagus and morels divided amongst four plates. Top with spoonful’s of hot beurre noisette and a few choice leaves of watercress or chickweed if handy. A glass of prosecco would not go amiss with such a luxurious dish. Some finesse required but a rustic presentation devoid of pretension.
“… asparagus, tinged with ultramarine and rosy pink which ran from their heads, finely stippled in mauve and azure…transforms my chamber-pot into a flask of perfume.”