I’m missing the spring in the air: crocuses and daffodils emerging from their wintry slumber, furry catkins of pussy willows, blossoms bursting into bloom, wee lambs frisking and frolicking in the fields – and the start of asparagus season. Nowadays you can buy imported asparagus all year round, but fresh is definitely best as the spears distinctively sweet flavour deteriorates soon after picking. Come April, I’d (optimistically) start scouring the farmers market for the prized bundles or look out for the ‘Asparagus’ sign at the local pick-your-own farm. This year, a run of inclement weather has delayed the start of British asparagus season but fear not as, like an impeccably poured pint of Guinness, good things come to those who wait.
Asparagus was top of the list of things I didn’t envisage eating when I relocated to the tropics but oh, how blissfully wrong I was. The cool climate at higher altitudes (Kinabalu in Sabah and the Cameron Highlands in peninsular Malaysia) is perfect for growing asparagus, albeit a rather more spindly variety, all year round. So in honour of asparagus growers everywhere and to make it feel just a little bit more like springtime I decided to make a couple of asparagus and lemon tarts for lunch.
Puff pastry is one of few things I am more than happy to buy ready-made (I’ve tried making it – once), so these tarts are simple to make. The lightly sautéed stalks are puréed with lemon zest, parmesan and a smidgeon of cream before layering with the tips, Gruyère and an additional scraping of lemon zest for extra zing.
RECIPE: Asparagus and lemon tarts
Serves two as a starter or light lunch
2 puff pastry squares about 10cm by 10cm in size
18 asparagus spears depending on girth
One clove of finely chopped garlic
The zest of half a lemon, plus a little extra for sprinkling
A tablespoon or two of cream
A grating of parmesan
50g of grated Gruyère, plus a little extra for sprinkling
A sprinkling of salt and a grind or two of pepper
INSTRUCTIONS: Roll out the purr pastry so it is about half a centimetre thick and cut into two squares. Puff pastry here is sold pre-rolled and pre-cut into 10cm squares, but feel free to adjust the size of your tartlets. Lightly score about a centimetre in from the edge of each square and prick the middle of the tart with the prongs of a fork so the rim will rise and crisp in the oven. Trim the asparagus so the ‘filling area’ is covered by the tips neatly lined up side by side. I used the thin asparagus available here so 8 or 9 spears just about did it. If you use thicker asparagus you’d probably only need 4 spears per tart. Slice the remaining stalks (discarding the woody ends if using the thicker variety) and gently fry in a pan with olive oil and a finely chopped garlic clove for three minutes or until barely tender. Add the lemon zest and cream and continue cooking for a further two minutes. Purée the mix, add the cheeses and adjust the seasoning to your liking. When cooled, spread the purée in the middle of the tarts and neatly arrange the asparagus tips on top. Add a further sprinkling of Gruyère and lemon zest and bake in a hot oven until the pastry is golden brown. My oven is ancient and the thermostat is on the temperamental side but 200°C for 8-10 minutes should do it (there’s no harm in having a quick peek to check). Serve with a simply dressed rocket salad, a crisp citrusy Sancerre and enjoy…