I once worked with a clever cameraman whose entire suite of kitchen appliances amounted to a single white plastic electric kettle. He would boil pasta in his kettle, soft and hard-boiled eggs, cook potatoes, heat cans of food and steam his vegetables over the top. Toast was problematic, as were things like crispy bacon or chips - but hey, as far as food hacks go, an electric kettle can cover a lot of ground.
The idea of cooking asparagus in a toaster seems an outlandish idea but, along with cooking pancakes on the flat surface of an iron and salmon wrapped in Glad Wrap in the dishwasher (without the washing powder), toaster asparagus is actually an established hack out there.
I haven't tried it myself but I'm told you need the highest heat setting and it will take two rounds. The trick, it seems, is to line enough upright spears to fill the toaster so they don't fall over. You also need to ensure the spears are fat enough to not fall through the cracks and trim them so that the tips just poke out when the toaster is down.
Actually, don't bother. Asparagus is incredibly delicious raw and it's also super-easy to cook.
Snap is everything when it comes to freshness, you don't want flabby stalks and the tips need to be firm – check they aren't starting to break down and rot or open out into flower buds. Snap the stalks at the base and discard the tough woody ends (or use them to make stock).
Purists peel the base of the stalks but I don't bother, the skin isn't thick like broccoli skin (which I always peel). Raw asparagus has a sweet nutty, pea-like flavour and makes wonderful salads. It pairs well with Asian flavours as well as Mediterranean ones. Like tulips, asparagus spears will carry on growing if you stand them in a jug of cold water, after a few days they can be a good 5cm longer. You get more for your money but the flavour won't be as intense.
You can finely dice or grate raw asparagus but when I have time I like to shred it with a vegetable peeler. Starting from the bottom end of the asparagus, shave upwards to create thin ribbons. Place the ribbons in a large serving bowl and build a simple salad around them - avocado, cucumber and shavings of parmesan dressed with lemon zest, flaky salt, grinds of pepper and a glug of good olive oil is a simple, delicious combo.
Make a simple asparagus pesto by first blanching a bunch of spears, then cool under cold icy water, drain and chop into a food processor bowl. Blitz with a clove of garlic, the zest of a lemon, a good pinch of salt, ½ cup finely grated parmesan and enough oil to make a loose, easily spoonable sauce. Blend in some toasted almonds if you fancy.
Here are some of my other favourite ways to asparagus in its fleeting season.
Asian Asparagus and Avocado Salad
Ready in 6 minutes
Serves 4 as a side
250g asparagus spears
1 large avocado, finely chopped
2 tsp sesame oil
2 tsp soy sauce
Zest of ½ a lime, finely grated
2 Tbsp toasted sesame seeds
Snap off and discard tough ends of asparagus. Thinly angle-slice spears, reserving the tips. Place tips in a bowl, cover with boiling water, allow to stand for 1 minute then drain and cool under cold water.
Drain well and add to sliced raw asparagus. Mix sesame oil, soy sauce, sugar and lime zest. Add to salad with most of the sesame seeds and toss gently to combine.
Transfer to a serving platter and garnish with the rest of the sesame seeds.
This is best served within an hour or two to avoid avocado browning.
Fresh Asparagus Soup
You can use the tough ends of asparagus to make the stock for this simple soup. It's a great thing to make when asparagus gets cheaper and freezes well.
Ready in 40 minutes
1kg asparagus spears
3 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
15-20 basil leaves, chopped, plus extra to garnish
Salt and ground black pepper, to taste
1 litre vegetable or chicken stock
2 Tbsp chopped flat-leaf parsley leaves
50g parmesan, finely grated
Snap off and discard tough ends of asparagus (or simmer with a litre of water, an onion, a bay leaf and a few peppercorns to make stock. Strain before using). Peel the stems and cut into 2-3cm lengths, reserving the tips for a garnish.
Heat oil in a heavy-based pot and add asparagus pieces (except tips), garlic, basil and a little salt and pepper. Cook over a low heat until asparagus has softened (6-8 minutes). Add stock and simmer over medium heat until asparagus is very tender (8 minutes).
While soup cooks, place asparagus tips in a bowl, cover with boiling water, allow to stand for 1 minute then drain and refresh under cold water. Drain well.
Transfer soup to a food processor, add parsley and parmesan and whizz until smooth or whizz in the pot with a hand wand mixer. Return to pot, adjust seasonings to taste, add asparagus tips and return to a simmer. Serve in heated bowls, garnished with extra basil leaves.
Asparagus & Goat's Cheese Tart
This makes a great lunch dish and is sturdy enough for a picnic.
Ready in 45 minutes
100g goat's feta
100g cream cheese
½ cup cream
Zest of ½ lemon, finely grated
2 Tbsp chopped chervil or parsley
½ tsp salt and grinds of pepper
12-14 trimmed asparagus spears
25cm pre-cooked savoury shortcrust pastry shell
Preheat oven to 170C. Place feta and cream cheese in a bowl and beat with a wooden spoon to soften, then whisk in eggs, cream, lemon zest, herbs and seasonings until smooth.
Arrange asparagus spears in a single layer in cooked pastry crust. Pour over cheese and cream mixture. Bake until set, about 35 minutes.