Growing up, asparagus was an unimaginable luxury. Something to dream of eating in high-ceilinged, white-tableclothed restaurants with benign maître d’s and silver sauceboats of melted butter. Despite living within a short drive of the Vale of Evesham, I didn’t taste a single spear until I worked in a grand restaurant, where we nicked the odd one from the silver salvers on the way to the dining room. To this day, it still feels like a luxury.
I had little idea, then, of what goes into getting a bunch into the shops. The hand-harvesting on bended knees; the care that pickers must take to protect the crown, each spear cut just below the surface of the soil with their trusty asparagus knife and its V-shaped blade. Neither did I know anything of the care taken to get the spears to market with their fragile tips intact. I bring them home from the shops on the top of my shopping bag, the tender bundle snuggled among the brown paper bags of vegetables like a baby in a manger.
At this point in the season, when the price has dropped, I will use my spears in a salad with fat-framed ribbons of culatello or San Daniele, tuck them into a brown rice pilau with mint and peas or add them to a pastry-topped pie of broad beans, peas and crème fraîche. Asparagus works well on the griddle, though I like it best when you have steamed it briefly first. It’s more juicy that way, and you get smoky notes from the grill.
Asparagus and ricotta fritters
As these green-speckled fritters are cooking, keep an eye on their progress and try to catch them while their insides are still soft and slightly creamy. Serves 4
asparagus 2 bunches
spring onions 2
eggs 2, large
pecorino 30g, finely grated
plain flour 50g
groundnut or vegetable oil a little for frying
Place a fine mesh sieve over a bowl, add the ricotta and set aside in the fridge to drain for an hour or more. This will help perfect the consistency of the batter, which shouldn’t be too wet. Trim the asparagus, removing the tough ends of the stalks. Slice the spears into thin, small rounds then put them in a bowl. Finely slice the spring onions. Finely grate the zest from the lemon. Remove the fronds from the dill, chop finely, then add with the lemon zest to the asparagus.
Break the eggs into a small bowl, beat them lightly with a fork, then stir them into the asparagus and dill with a little salt and ground black pepper, the grated pecorino, flour and the strained ricotta. Mix together lightly but thoroughly.
Warm a little oil in a shallow pan that doesn’t stick – you just need a thin film. Place spoonfuls of the batter in the pan, each one being about 2 heaped tbsp, flatten the tops a little with the back of a spoon, then leave to cook for 3 or 4 minutes. When the undersides are patchily golden, slide a palette knife under each one and flip them over and cook the other side. Do it in one quick, confident flip.
Grilled chicken with fennel seed and spiced butter
To follow the fritters this week, we ate chicken, marinated and cooked on the griddle. You could ask the butcher to bone the chicken legs for you. If you fancy having a go yourself, then run your knife through the skin and flesh, keeping the blade as close as possible to the bones. Tease the bones away from the flesh of the chicken with your fingers. If there are a few holes when you have finished, worry not. You won’t notice them once the meat is on the grill. Serves 4
For the butter:
hot paprika 1 tsp
ground coriander 1 tsp
dried oregano 2 tsp
garlic 2 cloves
lemon zest of 1
For the spice rub:
black peppercorns 1 tsp
fennel seeds 2 tsp
dried thyme 4 tsp
dried rose petals 2 tsp
chicken legs 4, on the bone
lemon or orange wedges
Soften the butter in a bowl with a wooden spoon. Mash the paprika, coriander and oregano into the butter together with a few twists of the pepper mill.
Peel and crush the garlic to a paste with a pinch of salt flakes, then stir into the butter. Finely grate and beat in the lemon zest. If you are using the butter immediately, leave in a cool place, if you are making it for later, wrap it tightly in greaseproof paper and store in the fridge.
Place a chicken leg, skin side down, on a chopping board. Using a very sharp knife, cut into the flesh and remove the bone. You will be left with a flat rectangle of meat. Place skin side down on a tray or plate and continue with the rest. Brush them with a little oil on both sides.
Make the spice rub: crush the peppercorns using a pestle and mortar, then stir in the fennel seed and thyme and bash briefly with the pestle. Stir in the rose petals. Sprinkle over the chicken, turning over to season both sides, then keep in a cool place till you are ready.
Get a griddle pan or frying pan hot. Place the chicken, skin side down, on the pan and cook for about 8 minutes until golden, then cook the other side. Once the chicken is cooked – its juices should run clear, not pink – season generously with salt. Add most of the butter to the griddle pan and let it fizz and froth – there will be a little smoke – turning the chicken over so it is well coated with the butter.
Serve the chicken on warm plates, with the browned butter spooned over and a wedge of lemon or orange.
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