It takes dedication to create an asparagus bed. They can be established from seed if you’re prepared to wait even longer than you have to when planting bare-root asparagus crowns. Any spears that appear from these must be zealously ignored for the first two years after planting. To pick them before will stunt future production. But once established, if properly tended, a single plant should produce 25 spears a year for the same number of years. My father devoted enough care and attention to his sparrow grass bed, as he called it, that our family of four feasted off it for most of June.
Asparagus is unusual in that it is its own genus, although it used to be classified as a member of the lily family. Found across Europe and western Asia, it’s an ancient flowering plant, featured as an offering in an Egyptian frieze dating back to 3000BC.
Emperor Augustus (63BC to AD14) even created the Asparagus Fleet to transport the delicacy. He came up with “Faster than cooking asparagus”, as an expression for speed. What the ancient Greeks and Romans didn’t eat fresh in spring, they used to dry for winter. Those who lived in the high Alps even froze the spears, for serving in January at the Feast of Epicurus. A recipe for asparagus can be found in the third edition of one of the oldest cookbooks, Apicius’s De re Coquinaria, published in 3BC.
It isn’t just valued as a vegetable. Eaters of asparagus will be familiar with its diuretic powers. But it’s respected for other medicinal properties. It’s described as a prebiotic for its ability to boost good bacteria in the digestive system. It’s also thought that its fibre and flavonoid compounds may ease hangovers and reduce liver damage caused by alcohol. Cooked, its regulatory characteristics are thought to help with ulcerative colitis. Not only that, it’s cited in 15th century Arab sex manual ‘The Perfumed Garden’ as an aphrodisiac. No other than Madame de Pompadour (1721-1764) relished being fed what were called points d'amour.
I agree with her. It’s such a treat, a serving turns me into putty.
It used to be that it was only steamed, boiled or blanched for serving warm with melted butter or cold with vinaigrette. Contemporary recipes offer it baked under sauces, grilled and roasted, raw and pickled. But I still think the original French versions that leave it barely messed with are the best.
However, if your asparagus bed has produced only a handful of spears, here’s a recipe for Asparagus Risotto that makes the most of them.
- 200g asparagus (about 200g)
- 800ml vegetable stock
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- 60g butter
- 1 medium shallot, finely chopped
- 175g Carnaroli or Arborio risotto rice
- 100ml white wine or vermouth (optional)
- 30g parmesan, finely grated
Bend the asparagus stalks till the tough ends snap off. Put them into a saucepan with the stock to flavour it. Simmer gently over low heat. Slice the tips off the asparagus and blanch in the stock for 1 minute only. Remove with a slotted spoon and set aside. Finely slice the remaining stalks diagonally into rounds.
Heat the oil and half the butter in a heavy saute pan over low heat. Soften the shallot 5 mins, stirring often. Raise the heat to medium. Add the chopped asparagus stalks and toss 2 minutes more. Add the rice and stir continuously for a few minutes until it turns semi-transparent.
Pour in the wine and let it almost evaporate. Reduce the heat to low. Add the stock, a ladleful at a time, stirring between each addition until it is absorbed, about 15 mins, till the rice is only just cooked and retaining a slight bite. If you need more liquid, add boiling water. Stir in the asparagus tips and stock to loosen if needed. The risotto should be soupy, not dry. Remove from the heat and fold in the remaining butter and the parmesan. Season to taste. Serve straight away with more parmesan in a separate bowl.
This column written by Julia Watson originally appeared in the May 2021 edition of The Bugle.