One of the best bits about living in deepest southern Alsace is that we have proper seasons. Each one brings its own special treat: in autumn we get gorgeous ceps and chanterelles, freshly foraged or sourced at the farmer’s market. During winter it’s the turn of a whole range of seasonal sausages, recalling a time when by tradition the family pig was slaughtered and sausages were freshly made.
Early spring brings lamb’s lettuce (aka mâche), which grows wild throughout the vineyards, and wild garlic (ramps or ramsons) from damp corners of the forest. Morels, those delectable, sponge-like mushrooms that point their wrinkled noses up through the newly green pastures (or, if you’re lucky, amongst the wood chippings in your newly planted rose bed), are another seasonal delicacy. A little later comes rhubarb, which finds its way into sublime, meringue-topped tarts. Right now, as spring gets (fit)fully into its stride, asparagus is having a moment.
For anyone who’s never visited Alsace in May or June, it’s difficult to convey the almost religious fervour associated with this wonderful vegetable. During its brief but intense season, some restaurants give themselves over entirely to serving nothing but great steaming mounds of asparagus (the standard portion is around a kilo (2 lbs) per person). Huge trestle tables and long wooden benches are the order of the day, napkins are tucked into collars in time-honoured French fashion and the feast gets underway. The mighty spears – always the white kind – are served naked and unadorned save for thin slices of ham (cooked, cured and smoked) and a choice of mayonnaise, hollandaise or vinaigrette sauces.
Around here, white is king, but green is also gaining ground. Here are three recipes that make much of both sorts.
Salad with Asparagus, Ham and Soft-Boiled Eggs
8 ounces green asparagus (about 10 spears)
1 tablespoon olive oil
For the dressing
1 teaspoon mild mustard
6 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons vinegar
A pinch of sugar
Chopped herbs in season (parsley, tarragon, mint, chives, lovage)
Salt and pepper
Mixed salad leaves (iceberg, Little Gem, lamb’s lettuce, arugula etc.)
Optional: thinly sliced radishes
4 slices cooked or cured ham, cut in thin strips
- Snap the woody ends off the asparagus and lay the trimmed spears in a small roasting pan. Drizzle with 1 tablespoon olive oil, sprinkle with sea salt and roast in a hot oven (400F, 200C) for 10 to 15 minutes until just tender when pierced with a sharp knife (timing will depend on thickness). Shake the pan once or twice so they roll around and cook evenly. Alternatively, cook in a ridged grill pan over high heat for 10 to 15 minutes shaking once or twice or until just tender when pierced with a sharp knife. Set asparagus aside.
- Put two eggs in a small pan of cold water, bring to a boil and count 3 minutes from when the water starts to boil. Drain the eggs, place them in cold water till cool, then peel. Leave them whole.
- For the dressing, place the mustard, olive oil, vinegar, sugar, chopped herbs and salt and pepper to taste in a jam jar and shake vigorously till emulsified.
- To assemble the salads, place a selection of salad leaves on plates, arrange asparagus spears on top, scatter with ham strips and optional radishes and place an egg on top of each one. Drizzle with some dressing (there’s more than you need for this recipe – keep it in the fridge).
Green and White Asparagus Stacks with Herby Vinaigrette and Prosciutto or Smoked Salmon
500g (1 pound) each of white and green asparagus
A sprinkling of sea salt
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 shallot, finely chopped
A good handful of mixed tender herbs (e.g. flat-leaf parsley, lovage, chives, tarragon)
5 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon vinegar (sherry, white wine or cider)
Salt and pepper
300g (10 oz) soft fresh goat’s cheese
6 thin slices prosciutto or smoked salmon
Flat-leaf parsley to garnish
- Peel the white asparagus making sure not to leave any tough strips of peel; trim the green. Put all peelings and trimmings in a saucepan with the stalks from the herbs, cover with 2 cups water and a pinch of salt and simmer for 20 minutes
- Strain this herby stock, put it back in the pan, bring to a boil and reduce to about a cup by fast boiling
- Lay both sorts of asparagus in one layer in a roasting pan, sprinkle with a little olive oil and coarse salt and roast for 10-15 minutes in a 425F (220oC) oven or until a knife inserted in the thickest part feels tender. Or boil or steam them 10 to 15 minutes if you prefer.
- For the herby vinaigrette, place the chopped shallot, herbs, reduced stock, oil and vinegar in the blender and blend till smooth – season with salt and pepper to taste.
- To assemble the dish, cut the soft fresh goat’s cheese in very thin slices and arrange on each plate to make a base on which to set the asparagus stacks.
- Cut each asparagus spear in 3 pieces – if very fat, slice also in half lengthwise.
- Arrange a layer of white asparagus on top of the goat’s cheese, then green (laid at right angles to them), then white (at right angles) and finally green (at right angles again).
- Cut prosciutto/smoked salmon in thin strips, arrange over the asparagus stacks and drizzle herby vinaigrette around.
Stir-fried Asparagus and Mushrooms with Toasted Sesame Seeds
1 kg (2 lbs) green asparagus
250g (8 ozs) mushrooms
3 teaspoons sesame seeds
2 tablespoons soy sauce
2 teaspoons sugar
2 tablespoons toasted sesame oil
1 garlic clove, chopped
A walnut-sized piece of ginger, peeled, grated
- Snap the woody ends off the asparagus and cut the spears on a slant in 5-cm pieces. Trim the mushrooms and slice or quarter them.
- Put the sesame seeds in a small frying pan and heat till nicely toasty and fragrant – don’t let them burn! Tip them onto a plate to cool.
- Mix together the soy sauce and sugar and reserve.
- When you’re ready to start the stir-fry (it takes barely 10 minutes), warm some soup plates in a cool oven.
- Heat 2 tablespoons toasted sesame oil in a wok or paella pan and fry the garlic and ginger VERY briefly till golden – keep tossing and turning it so it doesn’t burn.
- Add the trimmed asparagus and mushrooms and fry briskly, lifting and turning with two wooden spoons for about 10 minutes or until asparagus is just tender but with a bit of bite – keep the vegetables on the move and keep tasting till done to your liking. Stir in the reserved soy sauce and sugar and cook another 1-2 minutes.
- Serve the vegetables over rice and scatter toasted sesame seeds on top.
[A version of this article appeared first on Zester]