My weekly train journey west allows me a glimpse of the allotments that border the tracks. A chance to marvel at the serried rows of young cabbage plants protected by nets; romantic sheds on the verge of collapse; cane teepees of young beans and furrowed earth sprouting tufts of potato leaves. A window seat permits a sneaky peep at broad beans in flower and regimented carrots, rambling brambles and strawberry beds whose crop is ahead of my own. The trip stokes envy, too, at those who had the foresight and patience to plant an asparagus bed. The emerging stalks are barely visible at speed, but the swaying fronds left behind certainly are, the sort of ferny leaves you might find in a buttonhole at a wedding.
Asparagus seems cheaper now, but still something to treat with respect. In the steamer, or lying in state in boiling water, asparagus needs a gentle hand if the long, pencil thin spears are not to break. I sometimes serve it raw, using a vegetable peeler to shave the crisp green and white stalks into long curls. They will soak up a dressing without becoming soft, perhaps a mixture of olive oil and lemon or cider vinegar and walnut oil. You could add a few drops of balsamic vinegar, too. My preference is for something a little acidic in a dressing for asparagus, so a sweet lemon, its zest grated and its flesh finely chopped, are as likely to appear in a recipe as tarragon vinegar.
Anything salty will make asparagus dance. A dusting of Parmesan in the melted butter. A soft cheese left to drool over the spears in the oven. This week I married some late, West Country "sparrow grass" with samphire. Tossed in a dressing with some long-legged summer carrots and a little walnut oil, the salad was good, but even better the second time when I left the asparagus raw. The seasons for both just collide. The interest lies as much in the textures - spiky, curly and crisp - as in the flavour.
The end of season sprue, as thin as wire, will make a flavoursome enough soup, but I like it as a pasta dish, too, when the lightly cooked tendrils of asparagus end up in a tangle with spaghettini, almost melted butter, nutmeg and grated Parmesan. A cheap supper with a smattering of luxury. The fine stuff is hopeless in a quiche, though, unless you chop it finely and toss it with fried bacon.
As with everything, the season is late this year. We may get a couple of weeks more of local spears. Maybe longer. It's a chance to experiment a little, to move on from the sublime classic of hollandaise sauce or the perfect asparagus tart. A chance to sharpen the edges, to take a punt and consider the alternatives.
Asparagus, carrot and samphire salad
A clean, crunchy summer salad. Use the long, thin spring carrots and shave them from the bottom with a vegetable peeler. Serves 2.
long spring carrots 3
asparagus spears 6
samphire a large handful
medium shallot 1, medium
Peel the shallot and chop it finely, then put it into a mixing bowl with the white-wine vinegar. Wipe the carrots and remove their leaves. Using a vegetable peeler, shave the carrots into long, thin ribbons, letting them fall into the vinegar.
Shave the asparagus in the same way, toss with the carrots then set aside for half an hour. Wash the samphire and remove any of the stalks' tough ends. I prefer it raw, but if you wish, lightly steam for two or three minutes, drain and refresh in cold water. Add it to the asparagus and carrots.
Drain the vinegar into a separate bowl, then beat in an equal amount of rapeseed oil with a small whisk, adding salt and pepper, and fine tuning the salad until it is to your taste. Return to the bowl and toss the vegetables in it.
Asaparagus with lemon and tomato sauce
A lovely fresh way with the season's green spears using sweet Italian lemons. Serves 2.
olive oil 60ml
lemon juice 1 tbsp
cherry tomatoes 8
chives 6 thin leaves
basil 8 leaves
tarragon 1 tbsp
Slice the skin from the lemon then go over it carefully removing every little bit of the bitter white pith that lies underneath. I find this easiest with a small, sharp paring knife.
Remove the sections of flesh and cut into tiny pieces, discarding seeds as you go. Put them into a mixing bowl then pour in the olive oil and lemon juice. Slice the cherry tomatoes in half then add to the lemon. Finely snip the chives, shred the basil and chop the tarragon, then add to the lemon and tomato. Season gently, with a little black pepper and sea salt. A few chive flowers would be an appropriate, though far from essential, addition. Set aside in a cool place for the flavours to marry.
Trim the asparagus, removing any tough ends, then steam or cook in boiling water as you wish. When it is tender, after eight or nine minutes or so, drain and divide between two plates. Spoon over the lemon dressing and serve.
Baking the spears in a foil parcel in the oven will suit those who don't like messing around with boiling water and steam, and keeps the asparagus surprisingly succulent. Serves 2.
asparagus 450g, thin spears
olive oil 2 tbsp, light and mild
lemon juice of 1
Heat the oven to 180C/gas mark 4. Place the spears on a large sheet of kitchen foil. Drizzle over the oil and lemon juice and then scatter over a seasoning of salt. Bring the edges of the foil up and seal them tightly (you want the asparagus to cook in its own steam). Bake for 15-20 minutes, or until the spears are tender.
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Photo Credit: Green party: Nigel Slater's asparagus, carrot and samphire salad. Photograph: Jonathan Lovekin for the Observer