Michael van Straten
Michael van Straten

Grow It, Cook It, Eat It - Asparagus

There's a strange story about asparagus which says you can tell somebody's financial status by how much of the woody end they cut off. The higher up the stem they cut, the richer they are. This just goes to illustrate how much this wonderful vegetable is regarded as an expensive luxury. Eating asparagus is a real indulgence; so surely, growing your own must be a sign of true affluence. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Stone pineapples on each side of your gateway were originally put there to signify that the owner of this stately home was rich enough and clever enough to have heated greenhouses and a head gardener capable of growing real pineapples. Today of course, every Dunroamin' and Sea View has them on the garden wall and they've lost their true significance. But there's no reason why the smallest suburban garden and the most amateur gardener can't produce one of the truly great foods of the world – British asparagus.

All you need is a bit of time, a bit of land, a bit of work and lots of patience in the first year or so. After that you can look forward to a sumptuous feast of asparagus prepared in every conceivable way. By the third year, you should get 7-8 weeks of harvesting from mid-spring when the spears are about 6 inches long, you'll be amazed at how many new friends you make in the spring time once you start giving out your surplus as I've yet to meet anyone who doesn't want to be extravagant with fresh asparagus.

It's far more successful to grow from crowns and if you get one year old plants this year, you'll get a small crop in two years for a very short season, but wait till the third year for a decent return on your money and work. Three year old crowns can be harvested sooner but are more difficult to establish and you may lose some. Plant as soon as you get them and don't forget that asparagus beds are permanent and will keep cropping for 20 years or more.

You need a trench, about a foot wide and six to eight inches deep. Dig in lots of well rotted compost, dried seaweed or fresh if you live near the sea. Cover with a layer of fine soil and make sure you spread out the roots of the crown very carefully before filling in the trench.

In a small garden you can get away with leaving one foot between each plant and a double row of 24 plants will let you stuff yourself with fresh asparagus.

Be very careful of the roots, don't walk between the rows and remove weeds at the very first sign by hand. Liquid seaweed is a great feed.

If you've planted one year crowns, don't cut any but let them turn into fern. As soon as the ferns start to grow put a cane in each corner of the bed and two or three layers of twine right round to stop the wind dislodging the crowns. The female plants will form berries but don't let these ripen as you'll get self-set asparagus all over the garden which is troublesome and mostly unproductive.

Once they've formed berries and start turning yellow, cut down all the fern to four inches above ground and use the fern to mulch the crowns and protect them over winter.

Two year crowns will give you a small harvest for no more than four weeks from mid to late spring onward. By year three, 7-8 weeks of cutting should be fine.

Cutting your asparagus is best done with a proper asparagus knife. You should always cut below the surface – getting the knife blade at least three inches down. The trick is to cut the spear you want without damaging the mass of new spears waiting to come through. The only good asparagus knife I've found in recent years, other than from a garden antique dealer, is made by the specialist Dutch tool company Sneeboer. They're available from Harrod Horticultural by mail order on 0845 402 5300 or from their website www.harrodhorticultural.com

An ancient Roman proverb says "Do it as quickly as you would cook asparagus". How right they were. Pick, wash, cook and eat as soon as you possibly can. Ideally use an asparagus steamer which keeps the tips and a lot of the stem out of the water in a wire basket. This takes about half an hour covered. Otherwise cook on a wire grid in a saucepan of boiling water without a lid which takes at most 15 minutes.


Cream Of Asparagus Soup With Basil Cream
Serves 4

Our asparagus bed gives me the greatest pleasure. Going out on a late spring morning and cutting down a few spears for lunch is one of the wonders for any gardener. We grow basil in the greenhouse all year round and just the smell of it makes me feel good. This recipe combines both of those traditional flavours.

25 asparagus spears
1 litre/ 1 and three-quarters pints vegetable stock, preferably home made
1 large onion, finely chopped
60g/2 oz unsalted butter
150ml/5 fl oz double cream
1 large handful basil leaves
Small pinch of coarse sea salt

Cut off tips and woody ends from the asparagus, keeping the middle part to one side.

Put the woody ends into a small saucepan of vegetable stock, bring to the boil, cover and simmer for 15 minutes.

Then use a slotted spoon to remove and dispose of the stalks, replacing them with the tips. Leave uncovered and simmer gently till asparagus is tender but still crunchy.

Again, with a slotted spoon remove the tips – saving the cooking liquid - plunge into a bowl of iced water for 2 minutes then drain.

In a large saucepan gently sweat the onion in the butter until just translucent and starting to colour. Season with white pepper.

Add the rest of the uncooked stalks cut into one inch pieces. Add vegetable stock and the stock you've cooked the stalks and tips in, cover and simmer for 20 minutes till asparagus is very tender.

Allow to cool a little then puree with a hand blender or in a liquidiser in batches until completely smooth.

Strain through a fine sieve to remove all the stringy bits and return to the saucepan.

Pour the cream into a small saucepan and bring to a boil. Add the basil and salt, stirring till wilted – about 15 seconds.

Pour the whole mixture into the blender or food processor and whiz till smooth and replace in saucepan to keep warm.

Serve the soup in bowls adding a few asparagus tips to each and pour in the basil cream.

Asparagus Niçoise
Serves 4

Yum yum. The flavours of asparagus and this wonderful dressing are just incredible.

The piquancy of the capers and anchovy paste mix so well with the softness of the oregano and the gentle texture of asparagus.

This is one of my real favourites. Because asparagus is expensive the tendency is to be very conservative with it. Now's your chance to break out of the mould and try something that is really different.

5 tbsp mayonnaise
1 tbsp capers, rinsed
1 tsp anchovy sauce
1 tsp tomato ketchup
1 tsp fresh oregano, finely chopped - or 1 pinch dried oregano
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
16 asparagus spears

Put all ingredients except the asparagus into a small food processor and whiz till smooth.

Remove woody ends from the asparagus, (save for making vegetable stock).

Cook asparagus in boiling water and a tiny pinch of sea salt till just tender – 5-10 minutes, depending on thickness of the spears.

Arrange the asparagus on four plates, stir a few whole rinsed capers into the sauce and serve with the sauce on the side.

Asparagus Pasta
Serves two

Pasta is fail-safe family food and a God-send to busy couples who don't have much time for cooking in the middle of the week.

It's just too easy to buy a tomato or Bolognese sauce - nothing wrong with those, of course. But if you want an impressive change, try this one.

10 asparagus tips
145g/5 oz spaghettini
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 tbsp white wine vinegar
1 onion, finely chopped
Half a red pepper, stalk and seeds removed and finely chopped
1 small avocado (slightly under-ripe) cubed
2 heaped tbsp freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Boil the asparagus until just tender - about five minutes.

At the same time, cook the pasta and when al dente, strain, rinse briefly, return to saucepan and add oil and vinegar.

Mix in the onion, pepper and avocado. Serve with asparagus on top, liberally sprinkled with cheese.

Michael's Tip
If you buy asparagus with woody stems, don't throw the stems away. They're brilliant added to a home-made stock with carrots, parsnips, swedes, onions, garlic, turnips and any herbs you have to hand.

Just let them simmer in water for two hours. Use the stock to make soup, or reduce it by half by boiling vigorously for another hour and freeze for another day.


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