I’m not sure there is any moment of the year, in food terms, that rivals the beginning of May. At least not in Britain. Because this is the time of year when British produce comes into its own: suddenly it’s possible to eat new potatoes from Jersey, strawberries from Kent and asparagus from Worcestershire. My grandparents used to grow all three in their garden and allotment and, although I knew all about Jersey Royals and strawberries when I was younger, I didn’t discover asparagus until I was an adult. And, oh my, now I’m addicted.
So, when May comes around, I buy more of it than any other vegetable and, since the season only lasts for six weeks, I’m always looking for ideas for cooking it. For a ten-minute dinner I steam a bunch for 3-5 minutes (the time required will depend on how fresh it is) then smother the spears in melted butter, sea salt and black pepper. All I need with it is some fresh bread to mop up the juice and butter. For something a tiny bit more complicated (really tiny), asparagus, like purple sprouting broccoli, is gorgeous with eggs (poached, fried or mix some pre-cooked spears into scrambled eggs), olive oil and Parmesan (steam the spears as above, and serve with olive oil instead of butter and slivers of the cheese) and good ham or bacon (steam as before and wrap in the ham to serve, or serve with cubes of crispy bacon and olive oil).
Today I decided to try using it in one of my favourite dishes: eggs Benedict. Since asparagus goes well with all its components (ham, hollandaise, sauce, eggs, bread) I thought I’d try asparagus Benedict. And it works; it’s a bit heavy on the pans (you’ll need three) but light on time and ingredients. I’m definitely not saving this just for breakfast.
A bunch of asparagus (I think you need about six spears per person)
A couple of slices of ham (per person)
One English muffin (per person)
A jar of ready-made hollandaise sauce (never as good as homemade but the Mary Berry stuff is pretty yum)
1. Prep the asparagus by breaking off the woody section at the end. (The easiest way to do this is to hold a spear in your hands and bend it. It will snap about two-thirds of the way down if it’s relatively fresh. There’s no reason why you can’t just trim off the bottom and cook the whole thing, by the way, but since the tip steams faster than the stem this may leave you with overcooked tips.)
2. Steam the asparagus for about 3-5 minutes until a fork goes easily into both stem and tip.
Drain it and keep it warm (the pan it was steamed in should have enough residual heat to do this).
3. About halfway through the asparagus’ cooking time, split and toast the muffins, butter or oil them then lay a slice of ham on each side.
4. Then start heating a little oil in a frying pan and fry the eggs (or poach them if you prefer). At the same time put the hollandaise in a small pan over a low heat to warm through (you can heat it in a microwave too but, since I don’t have one, you’ll have to follow the jar’s instructions for that).
5. When the eggs are done and the hollandaise is warm, place the asparagus spears on the ham, put the eggs on top and finish with the hollandaise. Season with salt and pepper and devour.