SAUCY SPRING DRESSINGS + GROWING ASPARAGUS

Some years ago I established an asparagus bed in the back yard. Growing asparagus is a serious commitment. Once the asparagus “crowns” are planted it takes  two to three years for the root system to establish before a single spear can be harvested.

The first two years you basically do nothing, other than keep the bed weed-free and watered. The plants are left to grow into a fuzzy mass that is cut back in the autumn until it sprouts again in the spring. For the winter months it is snuggled under a layer of seaweed, sand still clinging to the seaweed tentacles – asparagus thrives from a sprinkling of salt, originating from the sand dunes themselves.

Suffice to say asparagus needs a dedicated space – another example of the commitment required. For half the year very little happens in the bed and asparagus doesn’t like to share its space with others. My dedicated bed is tucked away at the back of the garden, the bushy branches doubling as shade for lettuces and salad greens over the hot summer months.

This spring we are enjoying our third year of harvesting tender asparagus only footsteps from the kitchen bench. With sharp knife in hand I cut the spears flush to the ground, there is no grading, they come in all shapes and sizes – tall, short, thin, wide. A few days’ patience is required to harvest enough for a meal, and many spears are simply eaten raw sitting on the garden step.

The spears that make it to the kitchen are treated with a light hand, blanched for no more than a minute, drained and refresh under cold water. The are then spread on a platter, sprinkled with sea salt, a twist of cracked pepper, and a creamy dressing to accompany.

A quick note on dressings, something I am quite fussy about. The layering of flavours is crucial, similar to many Asian cuisines, finding a balance of sweet, salty, sour, bitter and pungent.

Typical additions to create this equilibrium include, sweetness from sugar or honey; a pinch of salt or splash of soy sauce; mustard delivers bitterness and pungency plus acts as an emulsifier; and vinegar or citrus juice provides the sour note. Lastly, a good dressing will “cling” to the vegetables rather than swim in the bottom of the bowl.

ASPARAGUS WITH CREAMY YOGHURT & CHIVE DRESSING

Serves 4 as a side

Prep time: 15 minutes

1 bunch asparagus, about 250g

⅓ cup natural yoghurt

1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

1 teaspoon honey

Small handful fresh chives

Small handful fresh parsley

¼ cup extra virgin olive oil

Juice of ½ lemon, about 2 tablespoons

Salt and cracked pepper

Trim the asparagus and arrange in a large saute pan. Cover with boiling water, simmer for one minute and tip into a colander. Refresh under cold water, shake off excess water and spread on a serving platter.

To make the dressing place all the ingredients into a blender and process until smooth. Check flavour, adding extra lemon juice, and season to taste.

LETTUCE WEDGE SALAD WITH CREAMY AVOCADO AIOLI

Serves 4 as a side

Prep time: 10 minutes

This egg-free aioli-style dressing is wonderfully creamy from the avocado, without being heavy. It is delicious drizzled over wedges of crisp lettuce or tossed through a spring slaw of shaved red cabbage and fennel.

1 iceberg or romaine lettuce

1 ripe avocado

Juice of ½ lemon, about 2 tablespoons

1 garlic clove, peeled

¼ cup extra virgin olive oil

1 teaspoon capers

2 teaspoons caper brine

4-5 tablespoons water

Salt to taste

Discard larger leaves from the lettuce. Wash and shake dry. Cut the lettuce into eight wedges and arrange on a serving platter.

Make the dressing. Halve the avocado, remove the stone and scoop the flesh into a blender. Add the remaining ingredients and process until smooth. Add a splash of extra water if needed to loosen the dressing – aim for a similar texture to mayonnaise.

*First published 22nd November on Stuff.co.nz.

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