I woke up yesterday to a vaguely recognisable sight. I looked at it and registered some long lost memory, but it took a while until it hit me: it was sunshine! I leapt out of bed doing a little dance of gratitude for the long, long awaited good weather, but soon remembered the mountain of work awaiting me. I was grounded and had little chance of enjoying the beautiful day outside.
But if I had to be locked in all day, and – worse – skip lunch, I’d take my revenge on dinner. I imagined a celebration of the warm(ish) weather with an impromptu evening barbecue, or maybe simply sitting outside a nice cafe’ sipping gin and wearing sandals. Sadly, that was very deluded of me, and at 7 in the evening I was still replying to the endless torrent of work emails. And so I called it a day and activated my plan B: my Midweek, Overworked, Have-to-Eat-Now Dinner (MOHtEND): very simple asparagus, warm barley salad, and speedy ceviche.
Asparagus was a bit of a challenge for me until last night. I should have looked at it the way I do at artichokes. Growing up, I only ever knew artichokes done in one very simple way: boiled in water until just cooked, then dipped in olive oil and vinegar (we didn’t knew balsamic; it was either red wine vinegar or limes). It was only after leaving home that I realised people prepared artichokes in all sorts of fancy manners. For me, the simplest one is still the best by a mile. I suspect it is the same story with asparagus. I was about to throw in the towel and admit in shame to the world that I didn’t actually like them that much. But then I started reading the books by my current culinary crush: Ruth Reichl. And she describes the purest way to eat asparagus: boil, dip in balsamic vinegar, eat. Clearly, the trick here is to use the best quality vinegar you can get your hands on. I didn’t have any at home, so switched to a little bowl of my favourite olive oil and a bit of lemon. Hello, asparagus! I’m back! Of course I love them. I was just not eating them right.
I found this nice fat bunch of asparagus in my local Turkish shop (where I run to every time I need to prepare a MOHtEND), and 25 minutes later we were eating dinner.
To go with it, I used some cod to make what I insist on calling ceviche, but it really is more of a fish tartare. Chop fish very thinly, add lime, chopped onions and available fresh herbs, let it cook in the lime for 10 minutes, eat. And some warm barley salad for the Resident Vegetarian. He was given some lettuce for good behaviour too. Oh, and some strained yoghurt (look for labneh if you’re at a Turkish shop) to accompany everything.
For the asparagus, Ruth Reichl’s recipe suggests cooking them between 5 and 10 minutes, according to their size. She was probably referring to the whiteish French variety, which is massive. The green ones we get over here are rather more modest, so 5 minutes were enough. Next time, I’ll probably leave them for 3 to 4 minutes for a more aldente bite. Once they’re cooked, sprinkle some salt over them – this is the time to use up your fancy Cornish salt, Fleur de Sel or Persian blue salt you were keeping for when the queen comes to visit. And dip them into, in my case, olive oil and lemon. It really was such a spectacular dish. We cleared the plate in no time, and would have kept going if there was any more.
For this and other very, very good Ruth Reichl’s recipes, her books are also a complete pleasure to read.
Asparagus with Olive Oil and Lemon
(adapted from Ruth Reichl’s book Comfort Me With Apples for lack of balsamic vinegar)
- as many asparagus as you wish to eat
- olive oil – the one you keep for special occasions
- salt, lemon
- To trim the asparagus, don’t use a knife. Bend them gently with your hands and they will naturally snip at the best breaking point. With the bit you’re left with (from the tip, obviously), you can – and should – eat the whole thing.
- I made them in a large saute’ pan because it still held plenty of water, but kept the asparagus quite tidy and together as they cooked. But you may need a larger one if making larger quantities. Fill the pot with water, add salt, and bring it to the boil. Add the asparagus, cover it and cook until you can pierce the spears easily with a fork. Aim to get them aldente. R. Reichl recommends 5 to 10 minutes. I left my small asparagus for barely 5, and they would probably have been nicer at 3 or 4.
- Drain the asparagus, arrange them on a serving plate and sprinkle salt over them.
- Discard any cutlery. Pick the asparagus with your hands and dip them into a bowl with olive oil and lemon.
- Make slurping noises and lick your fingers.