Asparagus time!

Each spring, I await the coming of the asparagus seller to the weekly market with eager anticipation! Asparagus can be had in the supermarkets well before it arrives at the weekly farmers market, but the supermarket offerings have often travelled a fair distance and are not as fresh as they should be. Most vegetables lose some of their quality if stored too long after harvesting, and asparagus is no exception! The sooner it is eaten after being harvested, the better!! I like to eat the first asparagus of the season simply boiled and served with melted butter and some steamed new potatoes. Once I’ve had my fill of it that way, I will prepare it in different ways.

A few weeks ago, a dear friend suggested that I try Jane Grigson’s recipe for Asparagus and Chicken Gratin. The recipe can be found in Jane Grigson’s Vegetable Book, a wonderful collection of delicious recipes for pretty much every kind of vegetable, and one which I just happen to have on my bookshelf! 🙂 . To sum up the recipe, cooked asparagus is layered with cooked chicken, a white sauce is poured over and the whole is topped with grated cheese, breadcrumbs and some melted butter before being baked until golden and bubbly. Sounds simple – and it’s incredibly delicious!!

The ingredients call for 500 g of asparagus and half a large roasted chicken. Since I don’t prepare roasted chicken very often, I bought three chicken leg quarters from the new poultry stand in the market (that’s a story for another article – I promise!) and roasted them.

I cut a thin slice from the end of each stem and peeled the lower parts of the asparagus in order to minimise waste. I cut the prepared asparagus stems into approximately 5 cm pieces before cooking them in boiling salted water.

I drained the asparagus pieces when they were just tender but retained a bit of bite, and refreshed them in cold water. I set the cooking liquid aside as that was to be used for the white sauce. Here are the main ingredients ready to be layered:

For the white sauce I used 1.5 tbsp of butter and 1.5 tbsp of flour, 300 ml of asparagus cooking water, and 150 ml of cream. For extra flavour, I also added the residue left behind in the tin from roasting the chicken!! I seasoned the sauce with salt and pepper and cooked it until it was nice and thick.

While the sauce was cooking, I put a layer of asparagus into my gratin dish from Poterie Not, and topped that with the diced chicken, which I topped with the remaining asparagus. I decided to use the tips for the top layer and to arrange them in a pretty pattern, but you can do it any way you like. I did not want to overfill my gratin dish, so I filled a smaller dish as well.

I poured the white sauce evenly over the filled gratin dishes and sprinkled the tops with breadcrumbs and grated comte cheese. Grigson specified cheddar cheese in her recipe, but alas, it’s not easy to find cheddar in our part of France.

Once the melted butter was drizzled over the gratin, it was ready to go into the oven. The recipe called for a moderate to high temperature – I set the oven to 190 degrees Centigrade and baked it for about half an hour. While the gratin was in the oven, I prepared some tender broad beans which I had picked in my garden that morning. The pods were very young with the beans hardly developed, so I steamed them whole.

Here’s the finished gratin – it was divinely delicious and well worth the effort that went into its preparation!! Do give it a try if you get a chance!

What’s your favourite way of eating asparagus?

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May day, may day

May has arrived and with it a slew of bank holidays.  May 1st is one of the holidays which are very strictly observed in France; hardly anything is open on Labour Day.  The next one is May 8th – VE day and again it falls on a Tuesday, which means that a lot of people take the “pont” and have Monday off.  On May 17th we celebrate Ascension, and finally May 28 is Pentecost Monday.  Then there are no more bank holidays until Bastille Day on July 14th!

The week really started well – a visit to Floralies in Florensac – a fete which was conceived entirely around plants and flowers. The blooms were fantastic and the local brass band was great at keeping us all entertained!

After that a quick trip to Marseillan for a light lunch – the sun was out and the terrace at the La Taverne du Port open – and yes, there was a table for two! A starter of Sardines en Escabeche, followed by gratinated oysters and mussels. Just perfect and oh so good!

The reason for the light lunch was that I had gotten a little carried away in the market that morning:  found some very young broad beans, wonderful fresh goat’s cheese, white asparagus and our butcher cut me two veal escalopes.  I cut the broad beans into finger long pieces and steamed them, dressed them with good olive oil and lemon juice, with a little salt and sugar, and left them to cool.  To serve I just spooned a little of the dressing over the beans and crumbled some of the goats cheese over.  I’d forgotten to pick some parsley in the garden – ho hum….  

White asparagus needs peeling, but to me it is well worth the effort.  It also takes a little longer to cook than the green stalks.  I decided to serve it with a veal escalope, simply pan fried, and some orange flavoured hollandaise sauce.  For that, two tablespoons of freshly squeezed orange juice and one tablespoon of apple vinegar were reduced to half and left to cool.  I then added the egg yolk, salt and butter cut into pieces and placed the pan in the simmering water, which was waiting for the asparagus.  Stir and stir until it is the right consistency et voila!  The veal was one of the tenderest pieces of meat I have ever eaten – I went back to the butcher to find out what cut it was and he told me it was Merlan, a small piece near the shoulder blade, and that it exists both in veal and beef.  I’ve put my name down for the beef version when he next gets it in.

May 1st saw me at a Vide Grenier in Olargues, where I found two bargains!  One was a stove top waffle iron, which I’d been thinking of for some time.  It looked in need of a good clean but that was easily achieved at home with soda crystals and hot water.  The other was an old linen sheet with a decorative hemstitch edge, which was still brand new.  After a few washes and being run through the mangle it is now on the bed, and just the right size too!   With all that exercise of walking around and bargaining lunch at the Fleurs d’Olargues restaurant was just the ticket.  Their food is very well prepared and beautifully served.  It was a little too cool to sit out on the terrace by the river, but I enjoy the dining room, which is airy and spacious without feeling as though you’re in an old garage workshop (which is what it was before it was converted into a restaurant some years ago).    The restaurant is owned and run by a Danish family, and in addition to great food they also offer fantastic bread, which is home made.  I always have to watch that I don’t have too much of that, so easy to eat…

It looks very much as though this is turning into a food blog, so I will have to make sure that those of you who would like to read about other things wont get short-changed!!