31 May 2014

Asparagus fritto misto with saffron mayonnaise

English asparagus is one of the great treats of mid to late spring. It can be grown in the back garden or on the allotment, but requires some hard work before one reaps the rewards. First a bed needs to be well-prepared during the winter, with plenty of organic matter added. In about mid-spring, shallow trenches are dug, into which asparagus crowns are planted. The trenches are then back-filled around the crowns. No asparagus can be picked in the first year, and only a few spears in the second. After that, asparagus can be picked for about 6-8 weeks from about mid-April onwards.

A few years ago I was lucky enough to be custodian of an established asparagus bed. From early-April onwards I would eagerly await the first harvest. As the first warm days of spring arrived, the asparagus spears emerged from the ground at great speed, as if by magic. Our bed would provide a huge, but brief, harvest of asparagus, and we ate it several times a week. After the beginning of June, we had to restrain ourselves and stop picking: in order to replenish itself for the following season, asparagus has to be allowed to form huge fronds, which by August can be up to 6-8 feet high. In the autumn, the fronds are then cut back to ground level, and a thick mulch applied to the bed.

Asparagus can be eaten very simply, either steamed or briefly boiled, and served with a hollandaise or vinaigrette. It also makes a great risotto (an excellent recipe for which can be found in Giorgio Locatelli's great book 'Made in Italy)'. For a slightly more unusual way of eating it, I like deep-frying it as part of a fritto misto with dandelion flowers and a saffron mayonnaise. If you don't have access to any dandelion flowers, you can miss these out.

The recipe

1 bunch asparagus
Fine semolina
A few dandelion flowers

For the mayonnaise
1 egg yolk
1tsp smooth dijon mustard
Approx 70ml sunflower oil
Approx 30ml extra virgin olive oil
1 pinch saffron
Juice of half a lemon 
Salt and pepper to taste

To prepare the mayonnaise, start by boiling some water, and infusing the saffron in about a teaspoon of boiling water.

Separate the egg, and put the egg yolk in a bowl. Add the mustard, and beat with a balloon whisk until it reaches the consistency of single cream. Mix the two oils together in a jug. I like to use a mix of extra virgin olive oil and sunflower oil for making mayonnaise. The olive oil gives a pleasant grassy flavour, but if used on its own can be too strong. By mixing approx one-part extra virgin olive oil with two-parts of a more neutral tasting oil like sunflower oil, a good balance can be achieved. Keep beating the egg/mustard mix and very slowly add the oil. The oil should emulsify into the egg yolk to produce a fairly solid consistency.

Add the saffron along with the infused water and the lemon juice, and incorporate well. Add salt and pepper to taste.

To prepare the asparagus, wash it well. Then take a spear in your hand, and  try bending it gently, working your way up from the woody end. You should find a point at which the spear will start to bend easily. Snap it off at this point, and discard the woody end. Prepare all the spears in this way.

If you have a deep-fat fryer you can use this. Otherwise take a saucepan that is large enough to accommodate the spears and fill it no more than a third full with sunflower oil. Heat the oil to 180C. Dip the asparagus spears in the semolina, shake off any excess then fry in batches for a few minutes. Avoid the temptation to fry too many in one go. It's important that the oil stays at about 180C. If you add too much asparagus in one go, the temperature of the oil will drop and the asparagus will become greasy.

Finally, dip the dandelion flowers in the semolina and fry briefly. As you take the asparagus spears and the dandelion flowers out of the oil, drain them on kitchen paper to absorb the excess oil.

Once you've fried everything, arrange the asparagus and dandelion flowers on plates and serve with a dollop of the mayonnaise.

The semolina gives the asparagus flowers a lovely crispy coating. The dandelion flowers provide a nice bitter contrast to the flavour of the asparagus.

Asparagus and dandelion flower fritto misto

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