When asparagus appears, spring is officially here. British is best, and it should be served fresh as possible.
When the first spears of English asparagus appear, we can wave a joyful goodbye to the freezing weeks that marked the "hungry gap" (the low point of the British horticultural calendar) and celebrate springtime proper - that revivifying time of year when the first flush of the new season's vegetables come on stream.
Sweet and juicy, British asparagus is streets ahead of the jet-lagged, bitter‑tasting Peruvian spears that sit on supermarket shelves year-round, and it will usually knock the spots off the cheaper Spanish crop, which too often arrives dehydrated from its road trip across Europe.
Asparagus deteriorates faster than most vegetables, so the speed it reaches your plate is paramount to maintaining the nutritional value and flavour. Look out for tight green tips and stalks that are moist and sappy within - asparagus with a woody, puckered, bendy stalk is past its prime.
Why is asparagus good for me?
Asparagus is an impressive source of the B-complex vitamins needed to produce energy and maintain the nervous system. They also regulate homocysteine levels in our blood - a strong risk factor for heart disease. Asparagus provides a useful amount of vitamin K - essential for strong bones. Some research suggests a deficiency of vitamin K may be a factor in the development of Alzheimer's disease.
Where to buy and what to pay
Whether in supermarkets, shops or markets, asparagus grown in the UK is never that cheap - typically £2.99 for a 400g bunch. But it only takes a few spears to add a touch of wanton luxury to cheaper, more workaday ingredients, such as eggs, rice and more affordable green vegetables. Don't chuck out the lower part of the stalks. Peel off any fibrous threads, and use them in a soup, pasta or risotto.
• Joanna Blythman is the author of What To Eat (Fourth Estate, £9.99). To order a copy for £7.99 with free UK p&p, go to guardianbookshop.co.uk
Roast asparagus with bread and egg sauce
This is based on an Italian sauce called dragoncello - the Italian word for tarragon. It makes a great starter, lunch or accompaniment to grilled meat or fish.
1 tbsp olive oil
Salt and black pepper
For the sauce
100g stale bread, ideally white sourdough
75ml red wine vinegar
1 bunch tarragon, picked and chopped
2 small cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
1 heaped tbsp capers
150ml olive oil
2 just-hard-boiled eggs, peeled and crumbled
1 Preheat the oven to 200C/400F/gas mark 6 with a roasting tin inside.
2 Bend the asparagus stalks and snap them where they want to break. Save the bottoms for another dish.
3 Add the oil to a large bowl or tray and season. Add the trimmed asparagus tops and toss about to coat thoroughly.
4 Remove the tin from the oven and drop the asparagus into it (which should set it sizzling). Arrange in one layer and return to the oven for 15-20 minutes. Shake the tin halfway through. The spears are ready when tender and golden brown.
5 Meanwhile, make the sauce. Soak the bread in the vinegar for 15 minutes. Squeeze out any excess vinegar, then add the bread to a mixing bowl and stir until broken up. Whisk the tarragon, garlic and capers into the oil, pour over the bread and mix until you have a thick sauce. Stir in the egg and season.
6 Once the asparagus is ready, serve with the sauce spread over the tips or in a separate bowl.
• Rosie Sykes is head chef of Fitzbillies and co-author of The Kitchen Revolution (Ebury Press, £27.50). To order a copy for £19.99 with free UK p&p, go to guardianbookshop.co.uk
Photograph: Jill Mead for the Guardian