Choice ingredient: Andy McFadden on asparagus

Categories: Expert guidance

In this regular series, cooks with a connection to Borough Market explore the seasonal ingredients that give them most pleasure. This month Andy McFadden, head chef at L’Autre Pied and member of the Slow Food England Chef Alliance, tells us why asparagus is his perfect April ingredient

My choice of ingredient for April has to be asparagus. For me it signifies the beginning of spring, whatever the weather is doing. I will only use English asparagus, because I think it’s the best in the world—the climate and conditions for growing it here are perfect. It has a depth and subtlety like none other and the shortness of the season makes it something to be appreciated. This means you will only find it in my restaurant for about six weeks—April and a couple of weeks in May.

Asparagus represents all the reasons you should eat seasonally. Not only is it at its best at the moment, it’s also plentiful, which makes it more affordable. Personally, I find that asparagus from other parts of the world or that grown for an ‘extended season’ has little flavour. It might look similar, but everything that makes asparagus special is completely absent.

I don't understand why you would fly something in from abroad when it doesn't taste like the thing you're trying to replace—it ends up being over-powered by the things you cook it in, which defeats the point.

Top quality
Once asparagus begins to arrive it goes on all of our menus: the lunch, the dinner, and the à la carte. We want to make sure as many people enjoy this amazing product as possible, but it has to be top quality. I would rather get five kilos a day and run out than get something of a lower quality just to keep it on the menu, which is how I think we should approach all our seasonal produce.

It is always best to buy asparagus as fresh as possible, because it deteriorates and starts losing flavour relatively quickly after picking. It really is worth eating it on the day you buy it. If that isn't possible, store it in the fridge with a damp paper towel wrapped around the bottom of the stalks and you’ll get away with keeping it for a couple of days.

Nature is a wonderful thing and there are other ingredients coming into season in April that you can pair with asparagus, such a radishes or jersey royal potatoes, which were actually a close runner up for my choice ingredient. Have them boiled and smothered with some really good butter—a wonderful combination. Peas are another great seasonal ingredient to pair asparagus with—you’ll often see the two used in risotto.

Shavings of parmesan
To cook asparagus, I would suggest washing the spears in cold water and removing the bottom ends of the stalks (if it’s fresh asparagus they will snap off cleanly), then boil or steam them quickly until just tender—around four to seven minutes, depending on thickness. Drizzle over a light olive oil, a twist of freshly ground black pepper, coarse sea salt, lemon zest and a few shavings of parmesan cheese.

You can do a lot of things with asparagus in the kitchen, but sometimes it’s best to just keep it simple. When I find some particularly good asparagus and want to enjoy it at home, I just cook it in salted boiling water and a little bit of butter, then serve it with a soft poached egg and hollandaise sauce. There are many different types of eggs—hen, duck, quail—try a few and find a favourite, it will make this dish taste even better. My friends always say “you’re a great chef, you should be doing something more complex”, until they try it and do the same themselves.

Fennel and watercress are very much in season in April—make the most of these freshest of ingredients by making an easy salad with asparagus, pine nuts, and parmesan.