Years ago, when I was earning my stripes as a film caterer and food stylist, I landed a job with an American film crew who flew out to shoot a yoghurt commercial. Snow had unseasonably dumped all over the verdant green grass of their shoot in the American Rockies, so a speedy relocation was required, which happened to be Fox Glacier. I was instructed to make ready for the opening scene, which involved a rustic table laden with fruits out in the middle of a lush green paddock, the cameras panning through the dawn light up into the snow-clad mountains and back across the table of bounty ... a slow drizzle of golden sun-lit honey falling on to the hero product - a large bowl of creamy white-as-snow yoghurt.
"We want cherries, lots of cherries", they clamoured, "money is no object." I rang Balducci's in New York and Harrods in London, I contacted produce markets all over the globe, but there were no fresh cherries to be found on the planet. Cherries are an early-summer fruit. Nowhere in the world is April early summer. Early spring, yes; summer, no.
In desperation I resorted to enlisting the art and makeup department to paint small polystyrene balls with nail polish in an attempt to fulfill my director's mandate. Yes, fake cherries.
It can be hard to realise, especially if you live in a city where almost any fruit or veg you want can be sourced year-round, that nature doesn't work on command. Thanks to glasshouse technology, summer-harvesting crops such as tomatoes, eggplants and cucumbers are now available year-round. Apples, pears, kiwifruit, onions, pumpkins and garlic can be stored until the next season harvest rolls round a whole year later. And in the opposite parts of the globe, someone somewhere is growing corn, beans and zucchini.
But some things won't be tamed. Of the fleeting and ephemeral tastes that nature brings to our tables, asparagus is the king. Long known as the harbinger of spring, asparagus pushes its sweet, fat stalks through the earth as the soil warms and the daylight hours start to stretch out. This is the moment we have waited for. The arrival of asparagus means it's time to get out the lawnmower out, along with the sunscreen and beach bag. The arrival of asparagus is all the notice you need to know that summer is just around the corner.
Asparagus with Capers and Crispy Bacon
Serves 4 as a light lunch
500-600g asparagus spears
3 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
4 rashers streaky bacon, finely chopped
1½ Tbsp capers
2 tsp wholegrain mustard
2 hard-boiled eggs, peeled
Salt and ground black pepper, to taste
Snap off and discard tough ends of asparagus. Drop spears into a large pot of well-salted boiling water and cook for 3 minutes. Drain, cool immediately under cold water, drain again and transfer to a serving platter.
Heat oil in a frying pan and fry bacon until it starts to crisp, then add capers and for cook another minute or two until bacon and capers are crispy. Remove from heat, stir in mustard and arrange over the asparagus. Finely chop hard-boiled eggs and arrange over the top. Season with salt and pepper to serve.
Annabel says: Once asparagus spears emerge from the earth, they grow incredibly fast - and the warmer the temperature, the quicker they grow, reaching up to 15cm in a 24-hour period. In the same way that tulips grow taller in a vase of water, so do asparagus spears. If you don't plan to eat asparagus right away, store it standing upright in a jug of cold water in the fridge. It will continue to grow, but the flavour will be less intense.
Asparagus Salad with Eggs
500g asparagus spears
2 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
2 small handfuls microgreens
1 large radish, very finely sliced
50g pecorino or parmesan
Flaky salt and ground black pepper, to taste
Snap off and discard tough ends of asparagus. Heat oil in a large, heavy-based frying pan and cook asparagus over a medium heat, turning frequently, until just tender and starting to brown (2-3 minutes).
Remove from pan and set aside. Break eggs into pan and fry, sunny side up. Place two eggs on each plate, top with asparagus, microgreens, radish slices and shavings of pecorino or parmesan. Season with salt and pepper and serve.
Annabel says: Asparagus makes a happy partner to lots of flavours - bacon, prosciutto, garlic, ginger, Asian sauces, all kinds of nuts, capers, parmesan, butter, olive oil and any kind of protein, especially eggs. Instead of toast soldiers, try dipping lightly cooked asparagus spears into soft-boiled eggs - it's really delicious.
4 sheets puff pastry
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 cup mascarpone or cream cheese
1 cup finely grated parmesan
Zest of 1 lemon, finely grated
2 Tbsp chopped basil leaves
Salt and ground black pepper, to taste
24 asparagus spears, trimmed
1 Tbsp lemon oil
Salt and pepper, to taste
Mint leaves, to garnish
Lemon wedges, to garnish
Preheat oven to 200C fanbake and cut baking paper to fit 2 oven trays. Place trays in oven to heat (baking tarts on preheated trays helps to crisp the bases) and place baking paper on bench. Brush one sheet of pastry with beaten egg, place a second sheet of pastry on top, then cut into 4 squares. Repeat with remaining 2 sheets of pastry, reserving a little egg for glazing. Place 4 pastry squares on each sheet of baking paper and score the top sheet of each pastry square with a sharp knife to form a 1cm border. Glaze border with a little egg.
Mix any leftover egg with the mascarpone or cream cheese, parmesan, lemon zest, basil, salt and pepper. Divide evenly between the pastry squares, spreading out within the border and taking care not to go over the edges or the pastry rim won't rise properly. Slide baking paper and pastries on to preheated trays and bake until puffed and golden (about 20 minutes). The bases can be made in advance to this stage and frozen or kept in the fridge for up to 48 hours. Reheat for 5 minutes in a 180C oven before adding the topping.
To make the topping, boil asparagus for 2 minutes then drain, angle slice and toss with lemon oil, salt and pepper. Divide between the warm pastry bases and serve warm or at room temperature, garnished with mint leaves and lemon wedges.
Annabel says: Be sure to consume asparagus before the tips start to open, as once this happens a substance called lignin is produced, making the bottom part of the stalk tougher. This is the plant's way of preparing the stalks to bear the weight of the ferns that the stems turn into as they mature. To trim asparagus, snap off the tough bottom end of the stalk at the point at which it becomes tender.