Category Archives: asparagus

The same but different


I feel lucky to have both: Italy and England, Rome and London. Of course there is the missing, the often exasperating toing and froing, the grass is greener and bouts of in-between when I’m not sure where I belong. But mostly I feel lucky and glad to have two countries, two cities and that in different ways I belong to both.

The day before I left I had my first Roman asparagus, long thin sprue, finer than a pencil, part boiled-part steamed under a tea towel turban until tender enough to bend but not flop with olive oil, lemon and parchment thin slivers of pecorino that swooned and wilted in the presence of such splendid warm spears. Then today, back at my parents house just outside London, I had my first English asparagus.


As you can see they are plumpish spears, which needed just a little whittling with a peeler to remove the not-too-woody tougher end. We steamed them, sitting on a nifty implement that looks rather like a perforated metallic flower, in Mum’s largest lidded sauté pan. I tried and failed abysmally to make hollandaise sauce, so we settled for melted butter instead.

It was such a nice lunch: new potatoes: taut, waxy and flecked with snipped chives and tender asparagus spears – like sweet slightly sulphurous peas – fearlessly doused with melted butter. There were hard-boiled eggs too. Not too hard-boiled though, more like tender-boiled eggs and sourdough bread. There were things to celebrate so I had a glass of Hugel muscat. The same but different.


Asparagus, new potatoes, hard-boiled eggs and melted butter.

This is hardly a recipe, more an assembly. Serves 3 and a quarter (Luca)

  • 2 bunches of asparagus
  • 4 good eggs
  • 8 new potatoes
  • a very fat slice of best butter
  • chives
  • salt and pepper.

Prepare the asparagus by either breaking off the tough woody end or using a peeler to carefully whittle it away. Scrub and boil the new potatoes in well salted water until tender. Hard boil the eggs. Cook the asparagus until tender enough to bend but not flop. Melt the butter.

Dress the potatoes with melted butter and snipped chives and the asparagus with the remaining melted butter. Give everyone a hard-boiled egg to peel and remind them to roll the asparagus and potatoes in the puddle of melted butter as they serve themselves. Obviously white wine and good bread wouldn’t go amiss.


I’m back in Rome on Sunday so hope to be back here with plumper post late next week.


Filed under asparagus, Eggs, rachel eats London, Rachel's Diary, spring recipes

Splendid spears

Lately I’ve been eating asparagus.

So much asparagus in fact, that my fruttivendolo shook his head as I, excuse me, we approached his stall the other (late) morning. ‘Sono finiti’ he said, nodding at the vegetable void between the melanzane and zucchine. ‘E le ciliegie (cherries)?’ I asked. ‘Sono finite anch’e le ciliegie’ he replied, nodding at the space between the last of the apricots and two punnets of strawberries sitting forlornly like the last two children to be picked for the rounders team. Then he tapped his watch and clicked his tongue ‘Ma a quest’ora cara, che t’aspetti’  (‘But at this hour dear, what did you expect!’)  What did I expect indeed, that this hour! The hour at which any self-respecting signora already has her napkin tucked around her knees, her knees tucked under the table and her first olive oil and lemon doused spear at her parted lips.

I’ve heard real asparagus aficionados possess a special tall, narrow pan with an ingenious basket system in which to boil/steam their splendid spears. I don’t. I have however devised my own cunning system for cooking asparagus. My slightly precarious and mildly dangerous method involves securing my bundle with string, chopping off all the woody ends at once so the base of the bundle is flat and then balancing said bundle, spears skyward, in the middle of a pan of enough vigorously boiling water to come three-quarters of the way up the asparagus. I then wedge a wooden spoon through the spears and under one handle, before covering the pan with a clean tea towel. This way the stems of the asparagus cook until tender in the boiling water while the delicate tips, the points d’amour, cook in the steam under their tea towel turban. Are you still with me? No! It’s probably better that way.

Having risked all sorts of kitchen mishaps I eat my boiled/steamed spears dipped in butter most of the time. Preferably unsalted butter made with cream from Volpetti. I leave a slice of the sweet, white butter in the warm kitchen so it’s extremely soft but not melted, and then I swipe my spears across the slab and crumble some salt over the top. A large napkin strategically tucked is advisable when eating asparagus dripping with butter, as is good bread and a glass of cold, crisp white wine. I’m also partial to plunging asparagus, spear fist, soldier style, into a soft-boiled egg or better still a pool of hollandaise. Since living in Italy I have also taken to eating my asparagus warm, doused with olive oil, fanned out like the spokes of a wheel on a plate and topped with very thin slices of parmesan.

So happy and busy am I with butter, boiled eggs, hollandaise, mayonnaise, olive oil and parmesan, and keeping in mind the fleeting nature of its season, I rarely want to do anything more with my asparagus. Except maybe, sometime in early June, having sated my asparagus fever, I’ll make a risotto.

I take Marcella Hazan’s advice when making Asparagus risotto, in that I partially cook the asparagus in salted boiling water first – about 3 to eight minutes depending on their size. Then I use this green tinted, asparagus infused cooking water as the broth. Marcella also suggests cutting the delicate tips from the asparagus, setting them aside and adding them at the very end. I think this is a very good suggestion. If you can control yourself when faced with a small bowl of delicious morsels that is?

Now you are going to need a glass of white wine for the risotto, so may I suggest you open the bottle now, pour yourself a glass and turn on the radio. Ready? Good! Let us begin. Having partially cooked and prepared your asparagus, set your broth in pan over a low heat at the back of the stove. Then in a wide, heavy based pan (I use my faithful le creuset) melt half the butter and the olive oil over a modest flame and then sauté the finely chopped onion, stirring attentively so it doesn’t brown but instead becomes as translucent and silky as a negligé.

Now add the asparagus pieces (but not the tips) to the soft onion and stir. Next add the rice and stir again so each grain is coated with butter before adding the wine and watching it splash and sizzle and pretty much evaporate away.

Now note the time – this will take about 18 minutes. Top up your glass, turn up the radio and begin adding the asparagus broth. Start with a hefty ladleful, turn the heat up just a little, stir and let the liquid almost disappear before adding the next ladleful. Continue like this, adding a ladleful at a time, stirring and nudging the rice while the broth is absorbed. After about 15 minutes start tasting. The rice is ready when it’s plump and tender but the center of the grain still has a slight firmness to its bite.

Pull the pan from the heat and let the risotto rest for a minute. To finish, beat in the rest of the butter and the grated parmesan moving your beating hand as fast as you can. You should hear a deep, thwack, thwack as you beat. The risotto should be creamy, moist, rich and emulsified. Finally add the asparagus tips, stir again and serve.

Have I ever mentioned I like risotto? Did I mention how much I like asparagus? Did I mention that butter and parmesan are both a heavenly match for the curious, sulfurous, vegetal nature of asparagus and so it’s hardly surprising how very very nice asparagus risotto can be.

A note about buying asparagus, it should be vital and fresh. Look for stalks that are firm, shiny and unblemished with tightly closed tips. Carnaroli rice works particularly well for asparagus risotto.

Risotto con gli asparagi    Asparagus Risotto

Adapted from Marcella Hazan’s recipe

serves 4

  • 500 g / 1 lb fresh asparagus
  • 1. 5 litres water
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 60 g /  2 ½ oz butter
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • a small mild onion
  • 450g Italian risotto rice
  • 125 ml dry white wine
  • 60 g / 2 ½ oz freshly grated parmesan
  • black pepper

Prepare the asparagus:

  • Holding your bunch of asparagus upside down, gently swish it in cold water. Then to snap off the tough woody bottoms, bend the stalk at the natural breaking point (where the color changes from white to green) 1 to 2 inches from the base.
  • In a large pan bring the water to the boil, add 1 teaspoon of salt and the asparagus. Once the water comes back to the boil, cover the pan. Allow the asparagus to cook for 4 minutes or until the asparagus are tender but still firm. Using a slotted spoon remove the asparagus from the water and set aside. Save the asparagus water.
  • When the asparagus is cool enough to handle. cut off the tips from the spears about 3 cm from the top and set aside. Cut the rest of the spears into 1 cm pieces, discarding any portion that is particularly tough or stringy.
And now for the risotto:
  • Add enough plain water to the asparagus water you have saved to make up 1.5  litres of liquid. Put this liquid in a pan over a low flame.
  • Melt half the butter with the oil in a large heavy based saute pan. Saute the onion gently over a medium flame until transparent and lightly gold in colour.
  • Add the cup-up asparagus spears but not the tips. Cook for a minute. stirring to coat the asparagus well.
  • Add the rice and stir it thoroughly but gently to absorb the butter and oil. Pour in the wine and boil for 1 minute to allow the alcohol to evaporate, stirring constantly.
  • Turn down the heat to medium heat and begin to add the asparagus water a ladleful at a time allowing the liquid to be absorbed into the rice before adding more. continue adding  a ladleful at a time until it has all been used up and absorbed by the rice. This takes about 18 minutes. Turn off the heat. Allow risotto to rest for 1 minute.
  • Add the remainder of the butter, grated parmesan, a grind of black pepper and beat firmly. Add the asparagus tips and stir again.
  • Serve


Filed under asparagus, food, pasta and rice, Rachel's Diary, recipes, summer food, vegetables