I’m literally counting down to the brief British asparagus season. Hopefully these green spears of delight will arrive soon. Then, 5 or 6 weeks on, they will be gone again until next year.
Of course whilst waiting with bated breath, I’ve been drooling over Instagram, Twitter and FB posts from fellow home cooks and food bloggers from places where the asparagus season has already arrived in all its splendor.
So I succumbed and splashed out a fortune on early season British spears. Mind you, nothing compared to the second mortgage I had to take out for a tiny bunch of white ones. Ouch.
When I moved to England I was smitten with green asparagus, as I’d only ever had the white ones more commonly found where I grew up. Now I am craving the white ones, as they are extremely hard to find in England (thus the phenomenal price tag).
Green and white asparagus are definitely different beasts all together. They can not be like for like used interchangeably in various recipes. Yes, they both love ham and eggs and butter and hollandaise. But the white ones are far woodier than the green ones and where peeling is an option for the greens, they are a must for the whites. The whites also tend to need longer cooking and only take to griddling, grilling or roasting after they have been blanched as a minimum.
They are the same vegetable though. The angelic white colour is simply preserved by heaping soil around the tender stems as soon as they appear, to prevent the sun and air turning them green.
It’s hard to get away from white asparagus when visiting Germany in particular during “Spargelzeit” (Asparagus season). Every restaurant worth their salt serves them in, under, with and over everything, often with a dedicated asparagus menu.
Belgium and the Netherlands play suit as well such as at an annual 2 week pop up in North Brabant, my home province.
Traditionally these are simply boiled or steamed white asparagus, served with ham, hollandaise sauce, eggs and simple parsley potatoes. Sometimes a herb vinaigrette will make an appearance instead of a hollandaise. Of course many chefs happily play around with these basics. The flavours are delicate though, so best not go completely left field. It’s the asparagus that should shine during their short season after all.
In this springtime dish I’ve partnered green asparagus with their good friends ham, egg and cheese. Pasta replaces the humble potato, and I’ve added lemon and a few greens to mark the brightness of the season. That’s it. Fresh. Easy. Simple. Delicious.
Spring Pasta with Asparagus, Eggs and Ham Hock (serves 4)
320 gr dried pasta (Use a good artisan lemon pasta if you can find it. Or a GF one if preferred)
250 gr green asparagus
1 tsp of rapeseed or olive oil
1-2 small shallots or a small onion, finely chopped
1-2 garlic cloves, finely chopped or crushed
1 whole large egg
2 large egg yolks
100 gr cream cheese of choice (Philadelphia, Boursin, Mon Chou or similar, with or without herbs)
40 gr firm Italian cheese such as Parmesan, Grana Padano or Provolone, grated
200 gr roughly shredded ham hock or thick cut ham cut into lardons
2 handfuls of greens such as watercress, rocket or baby spinach, or a good handful of peas, frozen is fine
a good grating of nutmeg
a small bunch of parsley, chives or basil, finely chopped or shredded
zest of a large lemon
4 poached eggs or confit egg yolks, gently reheated in hot water for a minute (optional)
Optional for serving: extra grated Parmesan, lemon zest, asparagus tips, ham and/or fresh herbs
Cook the spaghetti in plenty of boiling generously salted water until al dente.
Meanwhile, boil, steam or roast the asparagus until al dente. Set aside.
Whisk the eggs with the cream cheese, hard cheese, nutmeg and seasoning
Heat the oil in a large heavy-based casserole. Sauté the shallot until translucent but don’t let it colour. Add the garlic and sauté for another minute or so.
Cut the asparagus into 3 cm pieces and add to the shallots and garlic to reheat for a few minutes on low heat. Stir through the ham and greens. Turn off the heat.
Reserve a few tablespoons of the pasta water, then drain the rest. Tip the pasta immediately into the casserole together with the reserved pasta water. Stir through the herbs and egg-cheese mixture. The heat of the pasta will cook the eggs, heat the ham and wilt the greens Check the seasoning and adjust to taste.
Divide over 4 plates. Top each with a poached egg or confit egg yolk if using. Garnish with a little extra grated cheese, lemon zest, asparagus tips, ham and/or fresh herbs.