You know it's spring when asparagus hit the greengrocers - the tender green spears with their distinctive herbaceous flavour first appear in September, but they're in full stride by October, when the much-awaited purple asparagus arrives with its slightly fruitier flavour. If you're lucky enough to find white asparagus, snap them up, too.
Look for firm, bright, smooth spears with closed, compact tips. The bases shouldn't be discoloured and the stems should be crisp, not bendy. Thicker spears are just as tender as fine delicate ones (tip: if you're grilling or barbecuing, thicker is best).
Store asparagus in cool humid conditions - wrap the spears in a damp tea towel, place them in a plastic bag and refrigerate them in the crisper, or stand them upright in the fridge in a container with about a centimetre of water.
Before cooking asparagus, trim the tough fibrous ends. Some cooks snap them off, but we reckon this wastes a lot of perfectly good asparagus - just trim each stem to where the knife meets less resistance, usually only a centimetre or two from the base. To peel or not to peel? Unless you're after fancy presentation, skip this fussy step and enjoy your asparagus in its natural state. Steamed, blanched, roasted or grilled, tossed through salad or turned into a creamy soup, asparagus is one of our favourite spring things.
Quick spring chicken, barley and asparagus soup
Melt 1 tbsp butter in a saucepan over medium-high heat, add ½ thinly sliced leek and 2 finely chopped garlic cloves, and sauté until just tender. Add 1 litre chicken stock, 2 chicken breasts, 2 thyme sprigs and a fresh bay leaf, bring to a simmer and cook for 5 minutes, then remove chicken with a slotted spoon. Add 100gm pearl barley, cover and simmer until tender (20-25 minutes). Shred chicken and return to the soup along with 340g thinly sliced asparagus, season to taste and simmer until asparagus is just tender. Squeeze in a little lemon juice to taste and serve hot scattered with coarsely chopped flat-leaf parsley and finely grated lemon rind, and, if you like, a poached egg.
Shaved asparagus and lentil salad
Cook 200gm small green lentils in a saucepan of unsalted boiling water until tender (15-20 minutes). Drain, toss in a bowl with 2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil, 1 tbsp red wine vinegar, 1 finely chopped golden shallot and 1 finely chopped garlic clove, season to taste and cool to room temperature. Meanwhile, trim the ends of 340gm asparagus and blanch until just bright green (1 minute). Refresh and drain, then shave lengthways with a vegetable peeler or mandolin. Pile shaved asparagus on lentils and top with 150gm flaked hot-smoked salmon. Scatter with torn mint and grated lemon rind and serve drizzled with extra-virgin olive oil and a squeeze of lemon.
Asparagus and goat's curd tartines
Preheat oven to 180C. Place 8 thick slices of sourdough bread on a baking tray, brush both sides of each with a little melted butter, season to taste and bake until golden brown (2-3 minutes). Rub with the cut-side of a garlic clove and spread with 100gm goat's curd. Meanwhile, melt 80gm butter in a large frying pan over medium-high heat, add 500gm trimmed asparagus and cook, turning occasionally, until almost tender (1-2 minutes). Add 1 finely chopped garlic clove, finely grated rind of ½ lemon and a handful of finely chopped herbs such as thyme, flat-leaf parsley and chervil, cook for 30 seconds, then serve on the goat's curd tartines with plenty of the pan juices spooned on top, along with a squeeze of lemon and a scattering of extra herbs.
Boiled eggs with asparagus soldiers and celery salt
Dry-roast 1 tsp celery seeds and ¼ tsp white peppercorns until fragrant (30 seconds), then crush with a mortar and pestle. Add 2 tsp sea salt and ¼ tsp finely grated lemon rind. Soft-boil 4 room-temperature eggs (7 minutes) and drain. Meanwhile, blanch 340gm trimmed asparagus until bright green and just tender (1-2 minutes) and serve with soft-boiled eggs and with celery salt for seasoning.