British asparagus is always one of the stars of the season - secure in its place in the calendar it arrives on time and knows when to make its exit - just before it gets taken too much for granted and as the summer superstars start to move in.
So what to do with it? We are all probably familiar with the posh starters, smothered in something a little rich and buttery but perhaps a little intimidating for those without classic French cookery training - a hollandaise may not be as difficult as you would think but it never sounds casual.
Asparagus when you buy it should look freshly cut - the bottom of those stalks should not appear desiccated and the tops look tightly budded. The spears, as their name suggests, should be firm and as poker straight as nature intended - it's not worth bothering with anything that looks a bit rough around the edges or a bit too bendy in the middle.
To prepare asparagus, the woody bottom end of the stalks should be discarded - you can simply snap the bottom ends off and let the asparagus decide itself exactly where, but more recent research suggests that, while snapping has always been considered the way to find a natural breaking point, cutting the ends where the green starts to turn white is a surer way of getting rid of the "woody" bits; it also has the advantage of being quicker - no post snap neatening required.
Asparagus can be thrown into a pan of boiling water, salted just after it has come to boiling point, and needs no more than about three minutes cooking for stalks that are neither oversized nor tied and bound. Cooking time will, of course, vary according to the size of the spears, but on no account overcook them and remember their retained heat will keep them cooking even after you have lifted them from the boiling water.
Check the spears with a sharp knife about a minute before you expect them to be ready - they will be just tender when they are and they will very quickly turn from a vibrant bright green to a dull dark one when they have been overdone.
Whole spears can be served very simply with a little vinaigrette (made using very basic proportions of approximately one part vinegar/lemon juice to three parts oil, with salt and pepper to taste), or with some melted butter and a little salt. They are a perfect substitute for toast soldiers with a softly boiled egg for lunch (don't forget the melted butter and salt when serving them this way).
They can also be: stir-fried; grilled; laid in the bottom of a quiche (they will go well here with some Parma ham, some soft goat's cheese or a few spring onions and tender herbs before covering them in a custard of eggs and cream); included in an omelette; added to a salad, or baked in a gratin dish (covered with bechamel, Parmesan cheese or breadcrumbs).
Asparagus is one of the greats; versatile, distinctive, flavourful and a sure sign for its followers that longer, warmer days have arrived - what's not to love?
"Asparagus is the undoubted aristocrat of stalk vegetables" ~Richard Olney