Eric Akis: Making the most of asparagus

Eric Akis

British Columbian-grown asparagus is in season, the ideal time to offer another collection of recipes using these spears of goodness.

Simmering asparagus, leeks, potatoes and tarragon in stock until tender, and then puréeing them into a silky, spring-green soup, is how I started to make my first recipe.

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To turn the soup from great to grand, I then topped bowls of it with crabmeat. It’s a decadent soup, not difficult to make, with which one could start a multi-course dinner. You can also serve the soup as a light lunch with baguette.

My second recipe is what I call “gourmet” toast. I cooked asparagus in hot oil until lightly charred, then sliced it. Toasted bread was then slathered with creamy mascarpone and topped with salty prosciutto.

The asparagus was set on the bread and drizzled with sweet/tangy balsamic crema, creating toasts with tastes and textures that were indeed gourmet.

I love to serve asparagus with sole, and also spot prawns, so in my last recipe combined all three. To make this dinner for two, the prawns and sole were set in a skillet, topped with flavourings and cooked on my barbecue. The asparagus was grilled on the barbecue. To serve, the asparagus was set on dinner plates, then topped with the prawns and sole and their pan juices. Delicious!

B.C.-grown asparagus is sold at some local food stores and farmers market. You can also buy it direct from farms. To find farms that sell it, go to the Southern Vancouver Island Direct Farm Marketing Association website, islandfarmfresh.com, click on menu, and search asparagus.

Asparagus tips

Consider these things before buying, storing and cooking green asparagus:

• The best asparagus will be even in colour, from top to bottom. It will be smooth, firm and fairly straight, and have tightly closed tips.

• Asparagus tastes best when cooked the day purchased. However, it can be stored, unwashed, in a plastic bag, in your refrigerator crisper for three to four days. If there’s moisture on the asparagus you buy, wrap it in a paper towel before putting it in the bag. Another way to store asparagus is to trim the stems ends a bit, then stand the asparagus in a container filled with enough cold water to keep the stems moist and refrigerate until needed.

• Wash asparagus well before using. To ready for cooking, hold an asparagus spear in one hand, with 7.5 to 10 centimetres of the root end sticking out. Now use your other hand to bend the stem end until it snaps off its natural breaking point. The top of the spear is ready to be cooked. You can keep the tough stem end, to flavour vegetable stock, for example, or compost it.

Asparagus and Leek Soup with Crab 

This easy-to-make soup is made extra special by topping bowls of it with rich and wonderful crabmeat.

Preparation time: 20 minutes

Cooking time: About 12 minutes

Makes: four servings

1/2 lb asparagus, tough lower stems removed, spears cut into 1-inch pieces

1 cup thinly sliced leeks, white and pale green part only

1 1/2 cups peeled and cubed baking potato (see Note)

4 cups chicken or vegetable stock

1/2 tsp dried tarragon or 2 tsp chopped fresh

• salt and white pepper to taste

100 grams cooked, fresh or frozen (thawed) Dungeness, king or snow crabmeat, flaked

• snipped chives or thinly sliced green onion, to taste

Place asparagus, leeks, potatoes, stock and tarragon in a pot and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Lower heat until soup is gently simmering. Simmer soup until the vegetables are quite tender, about 10 minutes.

Purée the soup in a food processor, in a blender, or in the pot with an immersion (hand) blender. Return the soup to a simmer. Season with salt and pepper.

Ladle soup into heated bowls, top each bowl with an equal amount of crabmeat, sprinkle with chives (or green onion), and serve.

Note: One large potato should yield the amount needed for this recipe. Cut the potato into 1/2-inch cubes.

Eric’s options: This soup, without the crabmeat, and after cooling to room temperature, can be frozen. When needed, thaw, reheat, then top with the crab.

Charred Asparagus Toasts with Mascarpone and Prosciutto 

For a colourful spring lunch or dinner, serve these “gourmet” toasts with local salad greens and halved cherry tomatoes, tossed with creamy salad dressing or vinaigrette.

Preparation time: 20 minutes

Cooking time: six minutes

Makes: four toasts

2 Tbsp olive oil
10 to 12 asparagus spears, tough lower stems removed
• salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
4 slices sturdy French or Italian bread, toasted (my slices were 5 in long and 3 in wide)
1/2 to 2/3 cup mascarpone (see Note 1 and Eric’s options)
4 paper-thin slices proscuitto
• balsamic crema, to taste (see Note 2)

Heat oil in 10-inch cast-iron or other heavy-bottomed skillet set over medium-high. When oil is hot, add asparagus, season with salt and pepper, and cook one to two minutes per side, until lightly charred.

Set asparagus on a cutting board, cool a few minutes, then cut on the bias into 1/2-inch slices.

Spread one side of each toasted bread slice with 2 or 3 Tbsp of mascarpone. Top the mascarpone on each bread slice with a slice of prosciutto. Now set some asparagus on each slice of bread.

Set the toasts on serving plates, drizzle with a little balsamic crema and enjoy.

Note 1: Mascarpone is a tangy Italian-style cream cheese sold in the deli section of supermarkets. A 250-gram tub should yield more than you need for this recipe.

Note 2: Balsamic crema, also called balsamic reduction, is sold in the deli section and vinegar aisle of supermarkets.
Eric’s options: Although it won't be as rich and wonderful, you could replace the mascarpone in this recipe with cream cheese or soft goat cheese.

Spot Prawns and Sole on Grilled Asparagus

This divine dinner for two sees spot prawns and sole cooked with such ingredients as garlic, butter and lemon, before being set on grilled asparagus. Serve with rice or boiled miniature potatoes.

Preparation time: 35 minutes

Cooking time: About 15 minutes

Makes: two servings

10 to 12 spot prawn tails (see Eric’s options)
12 to 16 asparagus spears, tough lower stems removed
1 Tbsp olive oil
• salt and white pepper, to taste
4 small (each about 65 to 70 grams) sole fillets
1/4 cup white wine or chicken or vegetable stock
2 Tbsp melted butter
1 Tbsp fresh lemon juice
1 medium garlic clove, minced
1/4 tsp regular or smoked paprika
1/4 tsp dried tarragon
• pinch cayenne pepper
2 tsp chopped fresh parsley or snipped chives
• lemon slices

To butterfly prawns with shell on, use kitchen scissors to make a deep lengthwise slit along the back of each prawn to expose the flesh. Remove the dark intestinal vein, if there is one. Spread prawns open and set flesh-side-down on a work surface. Press on the prawns to flatten, then set on a plate. Cover and refrigerate prawns until needed. They can be readied to this stage a few hours in advance.

Bring a wide, shallow pan of water to a boil. Add asparagus, return to a boil, and cook one minute, or until bright green, but not quite tender. Drain asparagus well, cool with ice-cold water, then drain again. Dry asparagus with paper towel and set on a plate. Drizzle with the olive oil, and season with salt and pepper. Set asparagus aside for now.

Preheat your barbecue until it is 400 F in the chamber. While barbecue heats up, set prawns, flesh-side-up, in a 10-inch cast iron skillet or similar-sized, barbecue-safe, cooking pan. Roll each sole fillet up into a cylinder and set them in the skillet with the prawns.

Combine the wine (or stock), butter, juice, garlic, paprika, tarragon and cayenne in a small bowl. Spoon the mixture over the prawns and sole.
When barbecue is heated, grill the asparagus one or two minutes per side, or until lightly charred. Set asparagus back on the plate.

Set the skillet with prawns and sole in it on the barbecue, close the lid, and cook eight to 10 minutes, or until seafood is cooked. Remove skillet from the heat. Pop asparagus back on the grill a few seconds to make hot again.

To serve, set six to eight pieces of asparagus on each of two plates. Top the asparagus on each plate with two pieces of sole. Set the prawns on and around the sole and asparagus. Spoon the juices in the pan over the seafood and asparagus, sprinkle with parsley (or chives), and serve with lemon slices, for squeezing.

Eric’s options: If you don’t have a barbecue, you can cook the pan of prawns and sole in the oven at 400 F for 10 minutes, or until cooked.

You can also cook the asparagus on an indoor grill. If you do not have the latter, when asked to boil the asparagus, cook it a minute or two longer, until tender, then drain and serve it that way with the prawns and sole.

When spot prawns are unavailable, you can try another type of raw, medium- to large-sized prawn in this recipe.

Eric Akis is the author of eight cookbooks, including seven in his Everyone Can Cook series. His columns appear in the Life section Wednesday and Sunday.

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