Tuesday 17 April 2012

Asparagus carbonara

Asparagus has come so early this year - a good month before the beginning of the official English asparagus season - that there's a danger you may be fed up with it already and be casting around for creative things to do with it. This is a good way to use up the thin asparagus called sprue or those misshapen spears you sometimes find at farm gates which don't meet supermarkets' exacting standards.

Asparagus carbonara
Serves 2

A bunch of asparagus
1 tbsp olive oil
A slice of butter
1/2 a bunch of spring onions, trimmed and sliced
1 tbsp fresh tarragon or 1 tsp dried tarragon (optional but good)
200g tagliatelle, fettucine or spaghetti
3 large eggs, lightly beaten
4 tbsp grated parmesan or Grana Padano + extra for serving
A spoonful or two of double or whipping cream (optional)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Cut the bottom quarter to a third off the asparagus spears. Cut off the tips and set aside then roughly chop the rest of the stem.

Heat a frying pan, add the oil then when that’s hot add the butter. Tip in the chopped asparagus and sliced onions, add the tarragon and stir for 2-3 minutes. Add the tips to the pan and fry a few minutes more until tender then take off the heat.

Meanwhile bring a large saucepan of water to the boil, add salt and cook the tagliatelle for the time recommended on the pack. Spoon off about 3 tbsp of the cooking water into the asparagus then drain the pasta and return to the pan.

Tip in the beaten eggs, parmesan and cream if using and mix well. The heat of the pasta will cook the egg but shouldn’t scramble it. Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper.

Quickly reheat the asparagus and toss with the pasta. Serve in warm bowls with extra parmesan.

Thursday 5 April 2012

The best of the supermarket Easter wine offers

There’s a bit of a backlash against supermarket half price wine offers at the moment with which I’ve every sympathy. To artificially inflate wine prices only to heavily discount them sails perilously close to the wind legally but if the wines have been on offer in at least some stores at the full price they're in the clear. And this kind of discounting will go on unless the public boycott special offers in their droves (unlikely) or the Government sees fit to ban it (almost equally so).

So many of the following offers don’t look as good as they seem but at the price they’re being offered the wines are worth buying. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Don’t be fooled by the size of the discount and never pay the full price for wines that are regularly discounted.

Asda Mas Miralda Cava £5 - well above average supermarket own brand Cava; Extra Special Fiano and Pinot Grigio, both £5; Rigal, The Original Malbec £5; Casillero del Diablo Cabernet Sauvignon , Chile £5; Campo Viejo Crianza £6

Charles de Cazenove champagne is on sale at £15.99 - certainly not worth the original £31.99 but a fair deal at this price. The light, creamy Torres Vina Sol is also a decent buy at £4.99 if you’re looking for an everyday white.

Marks & Spencer
A well-priced Italian pair: Vermentino £5.99, Chianti Colli de Rasenna £5.99. Also 6 for the price of 5 on all bottled beers. Offers last until April 7th.

Not the easiest supermarket to check out online but the Ventoux red (£4.98), Calvet Sauvignon Semillon (£5.49) and Warres LBV £6.99 would all be worth a punt. And Innis & Gunn Oak-aged and Rum Finish beers at 2 for £3 is a good deal along with Morrisons The Best Vintage cider at £1.99 for 750ml. Beware ‘Better than half price’ offers in general though.

There are reductions on some of the Taste the Difference range including TTD prosecco £7.99, and the TTD Languedoc Red, TTD Languedoc white and TTD Touraine Sauvignon Blanc which are worth buying on a 2 for £12 offer

See my recommendations in last week’s Guardian column

Bredon Brut champagne is down to £13.99 again - a good buy if you want fizz for a wedding. Other deals: Lindauer Special Reserve Brut is £8.99; Baron de Ley Club Privado Rioja £6.32; Wither Hills Sauvignon Blanc £6.66; Muscat-de-Beaumes-de-Venise, Carte d’Or £4.99 a half bottle
And if you miss them? Don't panic - there will be more 'special' offers as soon as Easter is over plus the usual seasonal wine fairs.

Sunday 1 April 2012

Eggs and asparagus, Istrian-style

You might not think there's a lot to say about eggs and asparagus that hasn't already been written but then you probably haven't been to the northern part of Croatia that's known as Istria at this time of year. (No, nor had I.)

Over the three days we were there we had it three times - each served slightly differently. The most popular way to cook it is simply to saute the asparagus in a little olive oil then add some lightly beaten, seasoned eggs but it tasted like no other scrambled eggs - or asparagus - that I've ever eaten.

That's partly because the asparagus is wild with a more herbal, bitter taste than you get at home, partly due to the intensely grassy, green olive oil and partly the eggs which were super-fresh with deep yellow yolks. I reckon the best way to replicate the taste would be with the fine asparagus called sprue, maybe adding a small handful of shredded wild rocket.

Another way to serve it is with a chopped egg sauce and some fried ham or bacon as we did at a restaurant called Nono in Umag.

What's great about the dish is that it's so seasonal, made out of ingredients any smallholding had to hand or could forage for themselves. The period from now until May 1st is celebrated as 'Istrian asparagus days' - asparagus is regarded as an aphrodisiac and a protection against snakes, according to the website Colours of Istria. "Apparently, if you eat the raw tip of the first asparagus you pick at the beginning of the harvesting season, you will be safe from snakes in the forest for the rest of the season." Which must be a relief.

What I particularly like about this promotion is that the Croatians are perfectly happy to put a humble dish like scrambled eggs on a menu at a smart restaurant. Why to goodness can't we?