British Asparagus season

The British Asparagus season typically lasts a mere three months, between April and June (British weather depending!), giving all the more reason to make use of it while it lasts.

Asparagus-1It is known to have high levels of Vitamin A (an antioxidant) and folic acid, helping to fight against cancer, and at an average of less than 4 calories per spear, it really is a super food!

At the Hundred House, we are lucky enough to have one of the top UK Asparagus growers a mere five miles up the road in Quatt. Lodge Farm has been in three generations of the Lees family, with Asparagus produced there since 1972. At the peak of the season in June of this year, Head Chef Stuart Philips, went to visit Father and Daughter team, Caroline and Trevor Lees, to find out more about one of his favourite ingredients (and have a go on one of their buggies used for picking…).

Lodge Farm currently has up to sixty acres in full production of Asparagus growing. Waitrose are their main buyers, who take a keen interest in the Lees family as one of the biggest growers in the UK for Asparagus trials. Caroline and Trevor explain that they currently have around 1000 different varieties of Asparagus in testing that have already spent five years in a lab before reaching their farm. Out of these thousand, only about five varieties will actually make it to market, and that will take up to another fifteen years before you see them on the shelves.

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Asparagus is grown from seed and planted as a one year old crown. These crowns are then harvested and sent to Lodge Farm at the beginning of April (this year was a little different, with unseasonal weather meaning they could not plant until May). Very little is done to the Asparagus in the second and third year of its life, but in the fourth year the first cut is taken. The farm will then get eight years of harvesting the plant, with one spear per week per crown being produced in the eight week cutting season from crops around 10-12 years old. This year at Lodge Farm, 140,000 crowns were planted, around 12.5-13,000 per acre (hence the buggies).

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Stuart’s Asparagus Risotto

Perfect for a sophisticated dinner party. Serves six. Can be made a day in advance. Suitable for Vegetarians.

Asparagus-blog-1After following this recipe, you should end up with each grain of rice floating it its own sauce. This should be creamy, due to the starch of the rice mixing with the stock. Be careful when adding your stock, as too much will result in a wet rice pudding!

You will need:

  • Extra Virgin Olive Oil
  • ½ kg Asparagus
  • 1 small onion, chopped
  • 3 Garlic Cloves, finely chopped
  • Bouquet-Garni of Thyme and Bayleaf
  • Zest of half a Lemon and its juice
  • 3 Flat Mushrooms
  • 50g butter
  • 2 ¼ pints Veg Stock
  • 200g Risotto Rice
  • ½ cup Dry White Wine
  • Freshly ground Black Pepper
  • 3-4 tablespoons of grated Parmesan Cheese
  • Parsley, Chive and Buckler Leaf Sorrel

To prepare your Asparagus, wash and cut off the tough, woody section at the base, this should be around an inch in length. Slice the remaining Asparagus stems into rounds. Keep some of the tips for garnish.

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Begin by heating 6 tbsp of Olive Oil in a wide pan. Sweat the onions until soft, but still with no colour. Add the Bouquet Garni, diced Mushrooms, Lemon Zest and crushed Garlic.

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Add the Asparagus rounds and sweat until soft. Add another 4 tbsp of Olive Oil and stir in the Risotto Rice. Cook gently for 3-4 minutes, until edges of the rice is opaque. Then add half a cup of White Wine and cook for two minutes. This will reduce the acidity.

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Add the boiling Vegetable Stock, around two ladles to start. Begin on a high heat, stirring constantly. When the stock has been fully absorbed and steamed off, continue to add half a ladle at a time, until the rice is just chewable and 90% cooked.

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If you are preparing this meal ahead of schedule, allow to cool and place in the fridge until you are ready to finish and serve.

To Cook and Serve- Remove from the fridge and place in large based saucepan. Add Lemon juice, freshly ground Black Pepper, Parmesan and the Parsley and Chives. Place on high heat and stir in a small ladle of stock (you can always make some more if you have run out), stir vigorously and add more stock until the Rice is al dente.

To finish, add 2 tbsp butter, check seasoning and then pour into bowls. Garnish with Sorrel, Chive Flowers and Beetroot tops, more fresh Parmesan and Extra Virgin Olive Oil. Top with your reserved asparagus tips after you have soaked them in the stock.

Notes: Never add cream, to your Risotto, butter will lighten it instead.

Make stock with a Vegetable stock cube-not too strong, don’t bother adding any extra salt as stock cubes are usually quite salty already. For depth of flavour, add skins from onions, garlic and some fresh herbs.

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