It would have to be said that the Germans can really get quite exercised when it comes to the delicacy that is white asparagus. Seriously. This was just one headline that I found in my asparagus-related travels around t’internet:
Ouch. A cautionary tale for anyone considering a career in the roadside asparagus-selling business, that’s for sure.
Just coming into its short season right around now, white asparagus is grown under cover of soil in order to achieve the bleached effect. It is a sweeter and more delicately flavoured cousin to the green spears I’m used to, and was the theme for this month’s Five Star Makeover.
Thing is, even though asparagus is in season in continental Europe, the only white asparagus I could find here in Dublin was grown in Peru (which is where most of our asparagus comes from). In fact, I’m not entirely sure that white asparagus is grown here at all and, even when it is in season, Irish-grown green asparagus can be a tricky thing to come by.
Still, I took what white asparagus I could find, suspecting that it probably paled in comparison (though perhaps not literally) to the vegetables that caused the aforementioned German motorist to lose the run of himself. As for the makeover, it was hard to resist the temptation to just steam the asparagus and serve with lots of Irish butter. That, to my mind, would be as fine a way to eat it as any. I did, however, manage to hold off on the butter just long enough to make this little number.
Gratin of White Asparagus, Coconut & Lemongrass
Five star or no, I can’t help but feel that such a princely vegetable deserves a simple treatment that allows its flavour to shine. This gratin is certainly a simple one to prepare, while at the same time being at least a little different to the usual preparations, which match asparagus with the likes of butter, hollandaise sauce or mustardy vinaigrette.
It consists of white asparagus that is simply boiled and then coated with a coconut milk sauce, which has been simmered with asparagus trimmings, lemongrass and garlic, then strained and lightened with beaten egg white. That’s then topped off with a mixture of fried breadcrumbs and sesame seeds, and very soon after that, it’s eaten.
For the filling:
- 500g white asparagus
- 1 x 400ml tin coconut milk
- 2 sticks lemongrass, trimmed to about 10cm, lightly crushed and sliced into 5 or 6 pieces each
- 2 large cloves garlic, lightly crushed
- 1 tsp lime juice
- 1 egg white
For the topping:
- 2 tblsp vegetable oil (such as rapeseed oil)
- 100g fresh breadcrumbs
- 4 tblsp sesame seeds
- coarse sea salt (I used Maldon)
You’ll also need:
- An ovenproof dish, one that’s around 18cm x 24cm and 3cm deep should do the trick, or use 2 smaller dishes, around 12cm x 18cm, for individual servings.
- Rinse the asparagus and trim the ends by holding each spear about half way down and bending the base to find a natural breaking point. Set the trimmed ends aside and peel the spears carefully using a vegetable peeler. Keep the peels aside also.
- Bring about 2 litres of water to a boil and add about 2 tsp salt and the peeled and trimmed asparagus. Bring back to the boil and simmer until tender, around 5-8 minutes or more, depending on the spears, then drain.
- While the asparagus spears are boiling, to another small, heavy saucepan add the coconut milk, lemongrass, garlic, asparagus peels and trimmed ends and a good pinch of salt . Bring to a boil, then simmer gently, covered, for about 10 minutes. Strain through a sieve into a bowl, discarding the lemongrass, garlic and asparagus trimmings. Add the lime juice and a little more salt if it needs it.
- Now preheat your oven to 180C.
- Heat a large frying pan over a medium heat. When hot, add the vegetable oil. Then add the breadcrumbs and sesame seeds. Stir and fry for about 5 minutes or until the breadcrumbs start to turn golden, then remove from the heat. Sprinkle in a few flakes of coarse sea salt.
- Whisk the egg white to soft peaks and fold gently into the (now slightly cooled) coconut milk.
- To assemble the gratin, lay the asparagus spears into a baking dish, pour over the coconut milk mixture and sprinkle with the breadcrumbs. Bake for about 5 minutes and serve warm on its own as a light meal or perhaps with some crab meat for something more substantial.
- I’m inclined to think that salsify, if you can get or grow it, would make an eminent substitute for white asparagus here.
- Serves 2