Thursday, 15 April 2010

Asparagus Woody Ends

It's the start of asparagus season!  This means of course that for the next few weeks we have a mardi gras of celebrity chefs on our TVs demonstrating how to fondle our way along an asparagus stalk and snap off the woody end from the bottom, telling us how it will naturally snap at just the right spot to leave you with a perfect spear to eat.   I've long suspected this was bollocks and was very pleased to read food science guru Harold McGee confirming exactly that: there's no magic snapping point that a spear will tell you about, no matter how much flexing and caressing it gets.

The good news - especially given the price of English asparagus - is that a lot more of an asparagus stalk is edible than is generally believed, you just need to chop it up: the fibres that get progressively longer and tougher as you work your way down the stalk giving the unpleasant chewy, woody character all lie in the direction of the spear, slicing it into thin disks renders them into perfectly edible and tasty little slices.  Harold didn't seem too bothered about actually doing anything with the asparagus ends after he'd chopped them up beyond eating the little disks raw and sprinkling them on top of more asparagus so I thought I'd have a go.

Asparagus and sorrel tart

Lots of little asparagus slices add a nice contrast to the creamy texture of this tart, as well as filling it out with lots of asparagus flavour.  Sorrel isn't the easiest herb to get hold of but there's plenty of it around at this time of year if you have a good look around at the markets.  Its grassy, fresh citrus flavour goes well with the cheesy eggy asparagusy filling and really make this dish.

for the pastry (you can buy shortcrust pastry but there's nothing quite like homemade, plus you get to put loads of cheese in it which makes a difference):

25g each of butter and lard
100g plain flour
big handful of grated gruyere cheese

Put the oven on at 180, rub the fat into the flour then add the cheese and a pinch of salt, then just enough cold water (I add it a teaspoon at a time, should only need 2 or 3) to form a smooth dough ball.  Put it in the fridge in a plastic bag for half an hour, then roll it out and line a 19cm flan tin with it.  Ideally you'd have one of those shallow ones with fluted edges, I don't, any kind of cake tin about that size will do, you'll just end up with rather wonky looking bits of crust coming up round the edges.  Some people may consider this appearance amateurish, I like to think of it as homely.  Prick the base all over with a fork then bake for 20 minutes, take out of the oven and brush it lightly with some beaten egg (if like me you've not got a brush improvise with a few sorrel leaves) and give it another 5 or so minutes in the oven to glaze.

for the filling:

about 6-8 spears asparagus
2 handfuls grated gruyere cheese
1 handful grated parmesan cheese
1 big handful sorrel leaves
3 medium size eggs
1 tub single cream (about 300ml)

Beat the eggs together with the cream and the gruyere and salt and pepper.  Roughly chop the sorrel leaves, some stalks are fine but remove the larger ones.  Take the asparagus and slice off the really gnarled woody bits at the bottom, probably about 1 inch.  Then do that flexy caressy thing with each spear as if you were going to snap it like they do on the telly and slice it in half about 1-2 inches above where it would have snapped and slice the bottom half into thin little disks just a few millimetres thick.  Steam or boil the asparagus tips for about 3 minutes (you just want to half-cook them) then add the little disks for another 30 seconds.  Pat the little disks dry and put them in the bottom of the pastry case, pour the egg/cream/cheese mixture over the top then sprinkle the chopped sorrel leaves over and arrange the tips of the spears in it to your liking.  You might want to chop them in half once more, whatever.  Sprinkle the grated parmesan over the top and bake in the oven for about 30 minutes till the filling is set.

Crabmeat on toast

Take a mixture of white and brown crabmeat, add a tablespoon or two of mayonnaise, a little squirt of lemon juice and a pinch of cayenne pepper, season to taste and mix together.  Stir in a couple of handfuls of little disks of asparagus stem, either raw and crunchy or that have been boiled/steamed briefly for 30 seconds.  Serve on toasted slices of sourdough.  I suspect the little asparagus slices would make pretty good croutons in a crab bisque type affair as well.

One other tip from Harold McGee's original article if you can't be arsed reading it - short fat spears give the greatest ratio of tender to stringy.  Apparently some heritage varieties grew to 2 inches in diameter and a pound in weight.


  1. Thank you; I've always hated discarding the woodier bits and the solution is so obvious I'm kicking myself that I didn't think of this for myself! And I love the tart (but then again, I've always had a soft spot for a tart).

  2. It's hard not to love a good tart.

    @Chumbles - I know what you mean, I had a bit of a 'der' moment myself when I first came across the idea!

  3. OH - good ole Harold McGee! That's great news for asparagus lovers. The tart looks delicious.