One of my favourite times of the cookery year is the start of the asparagus season. I simply love the stuff and when the bundles of imported Peruvian asparagus that fill the supermarket shelves over winter make way for our local spears in April/May, I stock up and cook it constantly throughout late spring and into early summer. It's so versatile - steam it, roast it, pan fry it, bake it in a gratin or peel it raw into a salad. Great in asian stir frys or with French emulsion sauces, it really is a wondrous bit of veg.
The terrible spring weather of 2013 delayed the arrival of British asparagus last year and crop yields were smaller than usual with many farmers struggling to meet demand. This year, the mild winter has led to those green spears poking their heads up earlier than normal, and now rows upon rows of asparagus are standing to attention in the mud, many in fields which 2 months ago were under water.
To me there is nothing better than the sight of a plump asparagus spear, bowing in front of a puddle of rich eggy sauce before wetting it's head as if it was part of some decadent baptism ritual. Sometimes though it's nice to let the the true flavour of the asparagus shine through with a lighter dressing. A few spears simply blanched and then combined with a variety of other seasonal vegetables make the perfect garnish for so many things, a piece of simply roasted salmon for example of some grilled chicken.
This recipe makes a lovely starter or light lunch and it looks stunning on a plate thanks to the combination of the deep crimson beetroot, the green asparagus and the white poultry and bacon cream. If you can't get hold of quail then try poussin breast or even confit chicken wings and failing that some chicken breast will even work here. The bacon cream is rich and salty, my take on a savoury creme pat, and pairs beautifully with the sweetness of the roasted beetroot. A few blobs around the plate does wonders, but if you can't be bothered to make it then leave it out, or maybe sprinkle over some crispy parma ham instead. Dress the dish with a bit of wholegrain mustard combined with some highly reduced stock and a dribble of vinegar and you have the perfect warm salad to celebrate the arrival of British asparagus in the shops.
Warm Salad of Quail, Asparagus, Roast Beetroot and Bacon Cream
2 quail, boned
2 small red beetroot
4 spears of asparagus
A few sprigs of Lambs Lettuce
For the bacon cream
3 rashers smoked streaky bacon
160ml full fat milk
10g plain flour
1 egg yolk
70ml whipping cream
For the dressing
6 tablespoons dark chicken stock
½ tsp whole grain mustard
¼ tsp red wine vinegar
1 tsp olive oil
To make the Bacon Cream
Dice the bacon then fry with a drop of sunflower oil until brown and crispy. Tip onto kitchen paper to drain off excess fat.
Place the milk in a saucepan and scald. Add the bacon, stir and leave to infuse for a minimum of 1 hour, ideally overnight. Strain the milk to remove the bacon and pour into a saucepan.
In a small bowl, mix the egg yolk, a splash of milk, and the flours together. Scald the milk again and combine with the other ingredients in the bowl. Return to the pan and heat gently, beating out any lumps that form. When it has formed a smooth paste, transfer to a fridge and chill for a couple of hours.
Place the chilled paste in a small food processor and blitz to loosen. Whip the cream and fold into the paste. Taste and season if necessary. Transfer to a piping bag.
To prepare the vegetables
For the beetroot, rub with oil and wrap in foil, then place in a 180°C oven to roast for one hour. Remove from the oven and peel. When cold, cut into wedges and reserve.
For the asparagus, peel with a vegetable peeler. Bring a pan of hot water to the boil then cook the peeled asparagus for 3 minutes or slightly longer if you have thick spears. They should still be a little crunchy. Drain and place in iced water or run under cold running water to set the colour. Slice in half, then in half lengthways giving you 4 pieces from each stem.
To prepare the dressing
In a small pan, reduce the chicken stock by half, add the mustard , vinegar and the olive oil and stir to combine.
To prepare the quail
Remove the legs and cut the boned quail in half to separate into two breasts. Roll each half into a cylinder wrapping the skin around the meat. I cook my quail in a water bath at 68°c for about 30 mins and then pan fry them to crisp the skin but if you don’t have one of these then heat a small frying pan with a small splash of oil and a knob of butter, then pan fry the breasts until the skin is browned and meat cooked through. Cut the breasts in half widthways and season.
To assemble the dish
Toss the lambs lettuce in some of the dressing. Pipe 5 small blobs of bacon cream on to each plate. Arrange all the elements carefully on the plate and spoon over some more dressing. Serve immediately.