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?

Spring is on the way?

This week has been under the sign of spring!  With temperatures of up to 25 degrees I’ve been heading for the garden as much as possible.  One of the many jobs waiting to be accomplished is pruning.  Look at the tangled mass of branches in the picture – that’s one of the three kiwi vines in my potager, and it needs a good haircut!  Cyril from Domaine La Madura has lent me his electric secateurs and that makes the task less painful (blisters!) and much faster.  After five years of pruning the kiwis I’m still not entirely sure if I’m pruning out the right canes, but so far there’s been fruit each year!  My table grapes are also pruned already – I’m always amazed when I look at the cut glistening with sap, in some cases positively dripping.   (Continued after the photographs) –>

At the beginning of the week I decided to buy my seed potatoes to get them sprouted ready for planting.  On the way to Beziers the countryside was ablaze with trees blooming their hearts out – white, pink, some already leafing out, and others with flowers on bare branches.  It always gladdens my heart to see all that blossom!  With the good weather the cauliflowers I planted last October have come one very rapidly, and we’ve started eating them – cauliflower cheese, cauliflower soup, cauliflower with pasta, cauliflower on its own….  When it’s really fresh the flavour is absolutely superb, and it cooks in next to no time.  I will dig out Jane Grigson’s vegetable book for a few more ideas of what to do – there are four more heads in the garden to be picked!   Any suggestions??