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asparagus/ lemon/ parmesan/ pearl barley/ recipe/ risotto

Recipe: Cheering spears – Asparagus and pearl barley risotto

Asparagus & pearl barley risotto.
Flavoursome asparagus and barley.

Last Friday was a sad day for anyone who, like me, strives to cook with seasonal British vegetables. “How so?” you may ask. Well, it’s because 21 June marks the official end to the British asparagus season. I love cooking with, and eating, asparagus. In bunches, the bright green spears look almost like mini modernist sculptures rather than plants, and their sweet, earthy taste is completely unlike any other vegetable.

I always endeavour to make the utmost use of UK asparagus when it is available, as springtime recipe posts on Scrumptious Scran bare testament. At around two months, this vegetable’s season is akin to a culinary firework display – dazzling, but all too short. Maybe it’s pig-headedness on my part, but even though imported asparagus is now available year-round, my tendency is to avoid this. I simply don’t agree with flying food thousands of miles, just to ensure this is can be purchased when its UK equivalent is no longer in season. Plus, and I don’t think it is a psychosomatic bias on my part, but asparagus from South America just doesn’t seem to have the depth of flavour of that grown in Britain.

So, to mark the passing of the 2013 season, I decided to cook a dish that would be a celebration – or maybe a wake – for one of my favourite ingredients. My inspiration came from a dish I watched Suzanne O’Connor – Head Chef at The Scottish Café and Restaurant – prepare at the recent Slow Food event held at Edinburgh’s Summerhall. Suzanne cooked an original take on risotto, featuring peas, broad beans, mint and parmesan, but which substituted the quintessential Scottish ingredient of pearl barley, in place of rice.

So, behold my British asparagus and pearl barley “risotto”. The dish may appear quite simple, but I didn’t want anything to infringe upon the asparagus flavour its centre – rather the other constituents should complement this. So the creamy barley is cooked with home-made stock, and augmented with softened onion, a hint of citrus provided by lemon juice and zest, nutty savouriness from the addition of parmesan, and the grassy freshness of chopped parsley.

A fitting 2013 send off to this monarch of British vegetables, I trust you will agree. Roll on springtime 2014!

This recipe will easily feed four people for dinner.


  • 25g unsalted butter
  • 1 onion, finely chopped – I like to use sweet white onions in risotto
  • 275g pearl barley
  • A glass of dry white wine, 150-175ml
  • 1 litre of chicken or vegetable stock – homemade if possible
  • 2 bunches of British asparagus – 400 to 500g in total
  • A good grating of parmesan – at least 40-50g
  • 1 lemon, zest and juice
  • A bunch of parsley – a good handful – roughly chopped
  • A good grind of black pepper, and salt to taste (remember the parmesan will also impart salt to the dish)

Preparation and cooking

  1. Place a wide, not too high-sided, saucepan on a medium heat. Add the butter and melt until it begins to foam, before adding the onion. Fry until soft and translucent, stirring occasionally – this should take around 20 minutes, or so.
  2. Meanwhile, place the stock in a large saucepan and bring to a gentle simmer.
  3. Trim the ends off the asparagus and cut the spears into halves or thirds, depending on their length. Place these into the stock and blanch for 3-4 minutes until just tender.
  4. Remove and strain the asparagus, and place in a bowl of chilled water, to stop further cooking.
  5. Add the barley to the onion, and stir for a couple of minutes to ensure it is coated with the butter.
  6. Pour in the wine and stir until it is adsorbed by the barely – it will splutter and the evaporating alcohol may flare, so be careful!
  7. Add 1-2 ladles of stock to the barely, so the liquid just covers this. Simmer the mixture, stirring now and again, until nearly all the stock has been absorbed. It isn’t necessary to stir the barley quite as often as risotto rice, but do ensure it doesn’t catch on the pan bottom.
  8. Continue to add the stock a couple of ladles at a time. Nearly all the stock in the pan should be absorbed before adding the next batch of liquid. When practically all the stock has been added the barley should be creamy, but the grains still distinct and not broken down.
  9. Add the asparagus and stir into the mixture for 2-3 mins.
  10. Take the pan off the heat and then add the grated parmesan, lemon zest and juice and seasoning. Just before serving add the parsley and stir through.

Serve immediately, with extra parmesan available should diners wish to add a little extra.

asparagus/ broad beans/ monkfish/ recipe/ salsa verde/ tomatoes

Recipe: Spring fresh – Sautéed monkfish cheeks, with salsa verde, and asparagus and broad bean salad

Sauteed monkfish cheeks with salsa verde.
Green and tasty.

For me, spring is one of my favourite times for cooking with seasonal produce. Don’t get me wrong, I also love autumn for its rich abundance of fruit, vegetables, fish and meat. Yet after a long winter – where the choice of fresh produce can be limited – there is something revitalising about being able to once again cook with a harvest of fresh, green ingredients.

So having purchased some “just from the sea” fresh monkfish cheeks from Clark Brothers fishmongers, I decided to keep things clean-tasting by simply sautéing the fish and pairing it with a salad of spring vegetables and vibrant green salsa verde. This classic, Italian sauce makes a great accompaniment for meat and fish, with the fresh flavours of the parsley and basil being complimented by savoury background tones provided by the capers and anchovy, and the acidity of the lemon juice.

For the salad, I turned once again to British asparagus – I always try and make the most of this vegetable during its all too short season – matching this with the first of this season’s tender broad beans, and roast baby plum tomatoes. I also added a few toasted walnuts to provide some crunch and flavour contrast to the zippy freshness of the other salad ingredients.

With all those fresh flavours this certainly is a recipe that should put a spring to anyone’s step.

(This recipe should serve four as a substantial lunch or light supper)


Salsa verde

  • A few leaves of fresh wild garlic, finely sliced, or one clove of garlic, crushed
  • A bunch of basil leaves – a good handful
  • A bunch of flat leaf parsley – also a good handful
  • 5 or 6 tinned anchovy fillets
  • A teaspoon of capers – drained of brine or washed of salt
  • A good squeeze of lemon – around a tablespoon, to taste
  • Half a teaspoon of Dijon mustard (optional).
  • Olive oil – good quality extra virgin
  • Ground pepper, and salt.


  • A large bunch, or two smaller bunches, of British asparagus
  • A good cupful of broad beans, podded and outer skins removed 
  • Around a dozen baby plum or cherry tomatoes, more if preferred, halved
  • A handful of walnuts, coarsely chopped
  • Around 45ml of good quality balsamic vinegar
  • Around 50ml extra virgin olive oil – sufficient to make a vinaigrette with the vinegar
  • Half a teaspoon of Dijon mustard.


  • Half a kilogram of monkfish cheeks, rinsed, dried and lightly seasoned with salt and pepper.
  • Two cloves of garlic, unpeeled
  • Olive oil for shallow frying.

Preparation and cooking

  1. Start by preparing the salsa verde by coarsely chopping the parsley and basil.
  2. Place the herbs in a food processor and add the garlic, capers and anchovies (if you don’t have a food processor, continue chopping these ingredients until finely chopped, then place in a bowl).
  3. Add the lemon juice and mustard and whilst whisking/whizzing drizzle in the olive oil until a thick, shiny sauce forms. If using a food processor, be careful not to overdo it!
  4. When the sauce has formed, check the seasoning – due to the salt in the anchovies and capers, you may only need to add pepper. Transfer to the fridge until ready to plate up.
  5. In a large saucepan, bring sufficient salted water to cover the asparagus to the boil.
  6. Trim the ends from the asparagus spears and cut stems into thirds. Place in the boiling water and cook until the asparagus just turns tender. Drain and refresh the spears in cold water to stop them cooking further.
  7. Preheat an oven to around 180 degrees Celsius. Drizzle a little olive oil onto a roasting tray. Place the tomatoes on the tray and season with salt and pepper. Place in the oven and allow to roast until just soft – this should take around eight to 10 minutes depending on the size of the tomatoes, but do keep an eye on them to ensure they do not overcook.
  8. Bring a pan of salted water to the boil and blanch the broad beans until they are just turn tender – if they are small this will be a matter of just a few minutes. Drain and refresh with cold water to prevent further cooking. 
  9. In a heavy based frying pan dry toast the walnuts for a couple of minutes, then set aside.
  10. In a small saucepan, place the balsamic vinegar over a medium heat and reduce by half – this intensifies the flavour and means less oil is required to make the dressing.
  11. When cooled, add the Dijon mustard to the vinegar and whisk in sufficient olive oil to create a smooth vinaigrette – season with salt and pepper, to taste.
  12. Heat a heavy-based frying pan over a medium heat and add sufficient olive oil for shallow frying. Add the whole, skin-on garlic cloves and move around the pan occasionally for a few minutes, so that the oil becomes flavoured. Do not let the garlic burn, as this will make the oil bitter. Remove the garlic cloves.
  13. Fry the monkfish cheeks – in batches if necessary – until slightly golden on each side and just cooked on the inside. As the cheek meat is not too thick, this should only take a few minutes. Cover the fried cheeks with foil and keep warm while the salad is assembled.
  14. In a bowl, combine the asparagus, broad beans and walnuts, pour over ¾ of the vinaigrette and toss. Divide the salad between each of the serving plates and place the roast tomatoes on top, drizzling these with the remaining dressing.
  15. Place a portion of the monkfish cheeks on each serving plate and spoon a generous serving of the salsa verde next to these.
  16. Serve, placing the remaining salsa verde in a dish on the table.

asparagus/ crab/ recipe/ tart/ Valentine Warner

Recipe: Quaking baking – Crab and asparagus tart

Crab and asparagus tart.
Crab and asparagus tart with a crisp green salad.

I have a confession – possibly a shocking one, for a foodie. I’m a bit nervous when it comes to baking. With the popularity of the likes of The Great British Bake Off, it might appear a bit strange that an alleged foodie is intimidated by making bread and cakes; baking is so in vogue, after all.

Given my upbringing, this shouldn’t really be the case. My grandmother was a fantastic baker. She lived right next to my primary school, and I would always call round on the way home to be greeted by the smell of cupcakes fresh out of the oven, or – my particular favourite – a slice of freshly cooked apple pie. And this being the 1970s there was no resorting to packet cake mixes or pre-prepared pastry. My gran made everything by hand in a tiny kitchen, and without the assistance of a food processor.

Given how much I love cooking I don’t know why baking causes me such trepidation. Maybe it’s the control freak in me. Whereas with a casserole, roast or risotto you can keep checking how things are progressing; basting here, adjusting the seasoning there, but with baking it’s much more of a leap of faith. Ingredients are assembled, in common with any recipe, but bear little resemblance to how the finished dish should turn out, and there is no opportunity to sample and adjust things once the bread, cake, or tart is dispatched to the oven for the heat to work its alchemy.

So I thought it was time I pushed my cooking envelope, as it were, and did a wee bit of baking for the blog. Also, as my recipes to date have been pretty carnivorous, I also thought I would cook a shellfish and vegetable-based dish, proving to my pescatarian friend Christine – the women behind the excellent Vegemite on Oatcakes foodie blog – that my cooking isn’t just about meat.

Sticking to my guns in terms of trying to use seasonal ingredients wherever possible, I decided to have a bash at Valentine Warner’s mouth-watering recipe for crab and asparagus tart. All ingredients were purchased from Edinburgh Farmers’ Market (bar the flour and butter for the short crust pastry) – see my previous post for a spotlight on suppliers. For a vegetarian alternative, the crab could be substituted for a flavoursome, but not too sharp, cheese such as Emmental. This will complement the asparagus without overwhelming it.

So was my baking apprehension justified? Well, combined with a green salad the tart was delicious, with sweet/savory crab and the fresh – yet earthy – asparagus being perfect partners. So much so that the slice I had earmarked for today’s lunch was snaffled by my other half. Maybe I should bake more often…


  • 300g shortcrust pastry or 1 packet ready made
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • 2 bundles of British asparagus
  • 50g /2 oz butter
  • 1 small onion very finely chopped
  • 1½ tsp tomato puree
  • 1 generous tsp Dijon mustard
  • 300g / 9 oz soft fresh brown crab meat
  • 300ml / 1 ¼ cups single cream
  • 2 medium eggs, free range
  • A heavy grind of black pepper & salt to taste (I also added a pinch of smoked paprika)

Preparation and cooking

  1. You will need 25cm /10 inch loose bottom tart case
  2. Pre-heat the oven to 190°C/ 375°F Roll out out the pastry into a thin sheet large enough to line the tart case. Lay the pastry into the tin allowing any excess to hang over the edge.
  3. Screw up a a sheet of baking paper and lay on the pastry in the tart tin. Cover with baking beans to weigh the pastry down.
  4. Place on a baking sheet and cook in the preheated oven for 30 minutes until golden brown.
  5. Remove the paper and beans and cook the tart case for a further 5 – 6 minutes to crisp the pastry bottom. Remove from the oven and while the pastry is hot paint the entire case with the beaten egg. Using a sharp knife trim the excess pastry from the tart rim.
  6. Cut the asparagus spears in half and drop into boiling salted water, as soon as the water comes back to the boil cook for exactly 1 ½ minutes. Drain, cool in cold water, drain again and dry thoroughly in a tea towel.
  7. Melt the butter into a saucepan, add the onions and cook gently until soft and golden brown (about 10 minutes). Stir in the tomato puree and mustard then cook gently for a minute or so more. Finally, add the brown crab meat, the cream, salt & pepper, and stir it all together Remove from the heat and while continuously beating, break in the 2 remaining eggs, beat in well. Leave to one side.
  8. Scatter the asparagus into the pastry case, pour the filling over and carefully return the tart to the oven & cook for approx 25-30 minutes.The tart is nearly done when you give the tray a little shake and the filling wobbles slightly in the middle. It is important to take the tart out at this time as it will go on cooking, you want the filling soft rather than overset.
  9. Serve warm, or at room temperature, lovely with a crisp green salad.

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