"Asparagus inspires gentle thoughts."
Charles Lamb (1775-1834)
Asparagus season is short, roughly mid-May until the end of June, which we're nearing! I'm always as enthusiastic to buy the UK crops in the farmers' market as the producers are to bring it to the market. In the past I've not tended to be overly bothered by the white variety, but that's almost certainly a consequence of my generally having only really had jarred stuff in European restaurants where white asparagus is hugely preferred to its green relative. In fact they are exactly the same thing, it's just that white asparagus has simply had no exposure to light because as soon as the tips of the stalks emerge from the earth, more earth is layered on top. This constant darkness could perhaps be thought of a bit like how the whiteness of veal comes about but let's not go there! The important thing just for now is that I have found to my joy that very fresh white asparagus in prime season is a product vastly superior to the jarred stuff that has to date engendered anything but enthusiasm from me.
Anyway, as I was looking around for ideas for what I might create with white asparagus, I happened upon this particular number, "White Asparagus & Seared Scallops in Tomato-Tarragon Vinaigrette", by a chef called Thomas Wenger. It struck me as a taste of late spring or early summer, especially if able to get hold of early season tomatoes for the vinaigrette. It's a very enjoyable dish and one which I'd happily serve at a dinner party since so much of its preparation, both the asparagus and the vinaigrette can be done in advance.
Chef Wenger has come up with quite an elegant one here!
The sauce in this dish is essentially what is known as a "Sauce Vierge" and, indeed, that is what the recipe's creator refers to it as some way through his recipe. I would normally make this sauce with tomatoes which had been skinned (see, for example "Steamed Red Mullet with Fennel and Sauce Vierge") but, in this case, I rather like the texture of the tomato skins still in the mix. In any case, removing the seeds from the tomatoes is, to my mind, a must. Do let the vinaigrette infuse for at least the 20 mins in the recipe as the tomatoes will tenderise in the acid and make for the cohesive dressing being aimed for. This can be made a day ahead and the balloon whisk attachment of a hand blender is absolutely ideal for getting a successful emulsion of the vinaigrette .
One of the things that appealed to me so much about this recipe is the use of white pepper, an ingredient I am particularly fond of and which I think is given a bit too little air-time. I am firmly of the view it has its place over black pepper in certain situations and this is one of them.
Green asparagus would be perfectly fine as a substitute here but their cooking needs much less time. I'd be so keen to use pea shoots for the garnishing greens but, even with the way our seasons are becoming increasingly unpredictable, it would still yet seem unlikely to find asparagus and peas available at the same time.
Seared Scallops, White Asparagus, Tomato & Tarragon Vinaigrette
Ingredients (Serves 4 as a starter)
8-12 scallops (depending on size), white part only
2 tbsp cooking oil (sunflower, vegetable or light olive oil)
Freshly ground white pepper
Squeeze of lime juice
Picked salad leaves, for garnish (optional)
For the white asparagus:
8 thick spears of white asparagus
2 knobs of butter
Salt, quantity to taste
For the Tomato & Tarragon Vinaigrette
1 small clove of garlic, finely crushed
20g very finely chopped shallot (approx. 1 small banana shallot)
1 tbsp Dijon mustard
4 tsp sherry vinegar (cider or red wine vinegar are alternatives)
80ml extra virgin olive oil
2 medium tomatoes (approx. 150g in total), deseeded and cut into 3-4mm dice
2 tsp chopped fresh tarragon leaves
Extra virgin olive oil
Salt and freshly ground white pepper
Start with the asparagus. Half-fill a large bowl with cold water and squeeze in the juice of one of the lemons. Using a vegetable peeler, thoroughly remove the outer skin of the asparagus stalks, cut away the tough end of the stalks and place each stalk in the acidulated water as you work on the next. Bring a large pan of water to the boil and add the butter, salt and the juice of the second lemon. Transfer the asparagus to the boiling water and simmer for 15-20 mins until quite tender. Carefully drain, run under cold water to cool and drain again. Slice each spear in half lengthways and keep aside or store in the fridge for up to a day.
Meanwhile make the Tomato & Tarragon Vinaigrette. Put the garlic, chopped shallot, mustard and sherry vinegar in a bowl and whisk together. While continuing to whisk, trickle the oil slowly into the bowl so that the vinaigrette emulsifies. Stir in the diced tomatoes and chopped tarragon and season to taste with salt and freshly ground white pepper. Set aside to infuse for at least 20 mins. Alternatively, it can be stored in the fridge for up to a day.
Before the final cooking of the dish, pour the Tomato & Tarragon Vinaigrette into a sieve set over a bowl to separate the solid elements of it from the liquid. Put the asparagus in a microwave-proof fish and warm in the microwave oven. Place 4 halved asparagus spears on each of 4 serving plates.
Heat the cooking oil in a non-stick frying pan. Season the scallops only with salt and when the oil is medium-hot, put the scallops in the pan and sear for no more than 1 min on one side or until caramelised, then turn and cook on the second side for only 30 seconds. Transfer to a plate and drizzle with some lime juice and a sprinkling of ground white pepper. Leave to rest for about 1 min.
Place the scallops on top of the asparagus, spoon around the tomatoes from the vinaigrette, decorate with the salad leaves (if using) and finally drizzle over the vinaigrette dressing. Serve straightaway.