Growing Asparagus in a small garden is a bit of a lost cause. Firstly, you apparently need at least 15 asparagus plants to get a decent crop. But they take up a lot of space so I’ve only got 5. Secondly, it’s years before you can crop them. I put 5 crowns in in 2013 and this is the second season, but so far only one spear per plant. Maybe there will be more later, or next year, or eventually – or not. Gardening is the triumph of hope over experience, after all.
So, in the meantime, I buy asparagus, and at this time of year it’s grown in Britain, and there are quite a few farms in Angus, so buying Scottish asparagus should be possible. I never ever buy Peruvian asparagus, however, since it’s not grown in a sustainable way (see this Guardian article). Anyway, I think, for the planet’s sake, we should go back to seasonal eating, making the most of stuff when it’s in season and just dreaming about it for the rest of the year. That first strawberry of the year is so delicious that I prefer not to spoil the pleasure by buying watery imported strawberries at Christmas.
Asparagus is another seasonal favourite, so when British Asparagus is in season I really do make the most of it. Whenever we have visitors, out comes my husband’s famous asparagus quiche. (Winning the individual vegetarian quiche category at last year’s Food and Flower Festival has transformed him into the quiche expert in our household.) Here’s his recipe:
Pastry: 100g plain flour, 70 g wholemeal flour, 1/4 tsp salt, 1/4 tsp mustard powder, 1/4 tsp ground black pepper, 85 g chilled butter, 20 g freshly grated parmesan; 1 egg yolk (keep white for the filling), 3 tbsp cold water. Put everything except the yolk and water in a food processor and pulse to a crumb consistency, then add yolk and water and process until the pastry comes together. Turn out and roll out and line a rectangular flan tin. Use left-overs to line small tartlet tins. Prick base extensively with a fork. Chill in fridge for at least 30 mins. Bake blind at 160 ºC for 25 mins under a Teflon sheet. If the base has risen up gently press down while the pastry is still hot.
Tart: Measure your pastry base and work out the length of prepared asparagus you can fit in. My tin (10.5 x 33.5 cm) takes 3 x 10/11 cm spears down the way and between 8 and 10 across, depending on the thickness of the spears. Cut the asparagus to length and blanch in boiling water for 3 mins. Drain and dry on kitchen roll then place in the tin. (Cut left-over asparagus stalks into chunks, blanch, then use some to fill the tartlet tins.)
Egg mix – 2 eggs plus the spare egg white, 120 g milk, 20 g single cream, 30 g freshly grated parmesan, 1/4 tsp salt, 1/4 tsp ground pepper. Beat egg mix together and pour over the prepared asparagus. How much you can get in depends on the depth of your tin and how much the pastry has shrunk in the baking process. Bake at 180 ºC for 25 mins. The tartlets will take less time to cook.
A note on preparing asparagus. The woody end needs to be cut off, but it’s difficult to tell where the wood ends and the edible bit begins. The trick is to bend each spear gently, starting from the woody end and working your way towards the tip until it snaps. Throw the woody end away (or use to flavour stock for soup or risotto). If you have left over stalks, they can be used in another recipe. I recently made some very yummy savoury asparagus muffins (recipe from ‘One mix; A hundred muffins’).
Strawberries are another lost cause crop, for much the same reasons – they take up a lot of space and you don’t get that much of a crop per square foot, especially if the blackbirds (grrrr!) and snails/slugs get to them before you do. However, I notice ripe strawberries in the hanging baskets in the PLANT poly-tunnel, so that’s another way to grow them.
However, like asparagus, there are lots of locally grown strawberries you can buy and my favourite outlet is the Forgan farm hut (just off the Newport roundabout on the A92), and I’ve been buying a couple of punnets a week and am thinking about ordering some to make jam. But really I prefer them fresh out of the box or, alternatively, in the form of strawberry tarts. Do you remember those strawberry tarts you used to get (and probably still can get)? – a divine mixture of pastry, cream, strawberry and gloopy red stuff. This is my grown-up version of the same – which comes in two forms – the quick one and the slightly more delicious but definitely time consuming version.
Quick strawberry tartlets
1 pack tartlet bases (the shortbread variety are best if you can get them); 1 tub mascarpone; vanilla paste; caster sugar; strawberries; redcurrant jelly (or similar – I’ve used raspberry jelly in the past, or quince, and am currently using jostaberry/apple jelly).
Mix mascarpone, sugar and vanilla paste to taste (the amount of mascarpone depends on how many tartlets you are making and how high you intend piling up the cream.) Pile into the tarts and cover with sliced (or whole small) strawberries. Melt a couple of spoons of jelly with a little water (the amount depends on how bouncy your jelly is) in a pan until mixed and carefully brush or dribble over the strawberries. Serve within a few hours since the sugar in the jelly brings out the water in the strawberries and will make the tarts go soggy.
Not so quick strawberry tartlets
The only difference is in the pastry cases which you make from scratch. I suppose any sweet pastry would work but I particularly like hazelnut pastry. Here’s the recipe:
50 g hazelnuts, 225 g plain flour, 2 tbsp icing sugar, 110 g butter, 1 egg yolk
Toast the hazelnuts (180 ºC/170 ºC fan for 6/7 mins – allow to cool and rub off the skins) then grind in a food processor. (I use a coffee grinder but add some of the flour to absorb the oil from the nuts because otherwise the grinder seizes up.) Add the rest of the flour to the nuts, add the sugar, and rub in the butter (or whiz in a food processor). Add 1 tbsp cold water and the egg yolk and whiz until combined. Wrap in clingfilm and chill for 30 mins. Roll out and use to line tartlet tins (this should make 8ish, depending on the size of your tart tins.) Chill for another 30 mins then bake blind at 180/170 ºC using whichever method works for you. Fill when cool with mascarpone/strawberries and jelly, as above.
Variations – make one big tart. Make a galette (two or three circles of pastry with cream/strawberries sandwiched between). Sweeten mascarpone with maple syrup and leave out the vanilla. Use crème patisserie instead of mascarpone. Use raspberries instead of strawberries, or sliced peaches. The possibilities just go on and on …