When I was a kid growing up in Australia the opening of a tin of green asparagus spears was a rare and wonderful event. Starting at the bottom of the can it was opened half way round the rim, drained of its liquid, then fully opened and decanted into a bowl. Opening round the base of the tin meant the spears came out right way up. My very first chef trick!
What followed would be special - usually the spears would top a salad on a really hot day or they would accompany a Friday night supper of crusty bread, hot rotisserie chicken and possibly sliced ham after my mother had done the shopping after work. A delightful occurence in our household to have an entirely shop bought meal, usually not as good as the food my mother cooked but somehow seemingly forbidden fruit and therefore so much more fabulous. Other times the chicken would be cooked at home, ham was a staple sliced for sandwiches or on the bone at christmas but asparagus? It came in a tin.
When I was about 12 we had a family holiday in New Zealand - my very first overseas trip. We travelled from place to place and stayed in hotels and motels that my father had booked when he worked out our route. We arrived in one town later than usual (I'd say we'd got lost but my dad would deny it) and found the hotel we were staying in. Reception told us that dinner would be served imminently so we dumped our bags upstairs in our rooms and scurried back down again, saving the usual 'oohs' and 'ahhs' and exploration of a new place till later.
Dinner was a three course affair with a choice of 3 dishes for each course. One option for the starter was asparagus vinaigrette. I thought I knew what asparagus was, but I had no idea about vinaigrette. I'd like to tell you at this point that, unabashedly adventurous, I chose this dish to start. In truth what happened was I told my mother that was what I was going to do and she asked if I was sure I would like it. Couldn't lie, said no, she suggested I have something else. I did. No idea what is was I chose in its place.
It is the asaparagus I remember.
My sister ordered it and the contents of the plate set in front of her had never seen the inside of a tin. Fresh asparagus, deep green, crisp (who knew it could be crisp?), and, most astonishing of all, hot. A fan of warm spears were lightly bathed with a gleaming dressing - the very height of sophistication. How I wished I'd been brave enough to order it. I was allowed a tiny taste.
It made my regret complete.
It was probably another two or three years before I came across fresh asparagus for sale and not until I came to live in London that I ever cooked it myself. It is a truly wondrous vegetable, and the shortness of the season simply makes it more desirable.
I was enjoying myself at Food Blogger Connect over the weekend so the man did the shop armed only with a shopping list. And his glasses. Thinking it would make a great lunch Sunday I put asparagus on there. We were out Saturday night and Sunday, on my return, my sweetheart told me to go read the papers while he made me some food. He came in a few minutes later with a lovely platter of bits to pick at while I babbled happily at him about my days' adventures. We were out again Monday and so, by Tuesday, I really needed a new plan to use the asparagus.
Despite the pouring rain and sub 20C temperature I remembered it was spring. So I paired one green with another of peas and set the lot into a delicately creamy bowl of pasta. Utterly elegant, and oh so nice next day for lunch.
Asparagus & Pea Penne
For dinner for 2 and 2 lunchboxes next day you need
150g frozen peas
2 bunches of asparagus, about 750g in weight, snapped off their woody base
250ml chicken or vegetable stock
1 sprig rosemary
1 garlic clove, peeled
50g grated Parmesan
Possibly a peashoot to decorate
Bring a small pan of salted water to the boil and add the peas. Return to the boil, cook rapidly for a minute or so until the peas have just unwrinkled. Drain and tip them into a bowl.
Bring another pan of salted water to the boil. Cut the asparagus spears into lengths about the same size as the pasta, reserving the tips. When the water boils, add the cut stems. When the water returns to the boil, add the tips. Boil rapidly for about 90 seconds then drain and add them to the peas. Mix the butter into the hot vegetables and season.
In the small pan put the stock and cream, rosemary and garlic. Bring to the boil and let it bubble furiously till the liquid is reduced by about one third. Remove the garlic and rosemary and discard.
Cook the pasta in a large pan, according to the instructions on the packet, unitl al dente. Drain, return it to the big pan then mix in the cream and vegetables and the Parmesan. Check the seasoning and serve, decorated with a little pea shoot should you have some. Ours have been decimated by snails.
Fresh asparagus is incomparably wonderful, but deep down I still have a soft spot for the tinned stuff!