Asparagus with mustard crème fraîche

Do you snap or cut? Peel or shave? The start of the asparagus season often ignites debate between cooks about whether it’s better to cut off the woody ends (gives a neat finish) or snap them (feels satisfying, but has high potential for wastage). Others claim using a vegetable peeler or sharp knife to shave off any tough, stringy bits is a better option.

Personally, I think it depends on the asparagus; spears as fat as your fingers are likely to have woodier ends, while the very slender ones will need the tiniest of trims. Any ends you do trim off can be used in vegetable stock or – according to Love Food Hate Waste, because I haven’t tried this one myself – turned into asparagus stalk pesto.  

If you’re challenged in the kitchen equipment stakes and don’t have a deep pot (or steamer insert) to cook the asparagus standing up, try cooking them in one layer in a deep frying pan instead. 

ASPARAGUS WITH MUSTARD CREME FRAICHE

Serves 2-4

This is a fast way to dress up asparagus, whether you’re serving it as a side dish for four or a main course for two. The sauce can be made in advance and stored, covered, in the fridge for up to three days. 

  • 500g fresh asparagus, ends trimmed
  • For the creme fraiche sauce:
  • 1 small clove garlic, peeled and crushed to a paste with ½ tsp salt
  • 1 generous tsp Dijon mustard
  • Finely grated zest of 1 lemon and 1 tsp freshly squeezed juice
  • ½ cup creme fraiche
  • Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Cook the asparagus in lightly salted boiling water until al dente – about 5-6 minutes for spears of medium thickness (skinny ones will be done in 3-4 minutes and their thicker compatriots will need 6-7 minutes). 

While the asparagus is cooking, put the crushed garlic, mustard, lemon zest and juice in a small bowl. Mix well, then fold in the creme fraiche. Season to taste with black pepper.

Drain the asparagus and divide between two (or four) plates. Serve with a generous spoonful of the sauce.

TIP: This also works if you want to eat the asparagus cold: just cook the asparagus until al dente, then drain immediately under cold running water. When the asparagus is cold, wrap it loosely in a clean, dry tea towel and store in the fridge until ready to serve.

Spaghetti with agrodolce carrots

Do you have any idea how long it takes you to grate a carrot?

It’s not a competition or anything, but it takes me about 40 seconds to peel and grate one large carrot by hand. If I’m using the grating attachment on my food processor, this task takes about about 15 seconds, but that does’t account for getting the machine set up (or cleaning it afterwards). Not bad eh?

I’ve been thinking deeply about grated carrot recently after seeing a tweet from a high-up in the horticultural world that said packaged grated carrot was ‘flying off the shelves’ in New Zealand supermarkets. You read that right. People apparently prefer to pay nearly four times as much for pre-grated carrot rather than spending less than two minutes doing it themselves at home. A 250g packet of grated carrot (wrapped in plastic) will cost you about $2 – the same as a kilo of whole carrots (that you can put straight into your non-plastic bag).

To me, this is a very bad sign. Is the ability to buy pre-grated carrot a new status symbol? 

I know we should be pleased that people are eating grated carrot (I suspect this is the Nadia Lim effect), but shouldn’t we also be concerned that priorities are getting seriously out of whack? I get that life can be full-on and fraught, but are you really ever too busy to grate a carrot? 

I might be old-fashioned but I believe that being able to operate a traditional box grater without shredding your knuckles is a key life skill for every member of your household. It’s a companionable task that can be done while chatting to the main cook, thereby assisting them to get on with the rest of the meal a bit faster. Who knows, it might even give you more time to chat over dinner later?

SPAGHETTI WITH AGRO-DOLCE CARROTS

Serves 4

Agrodolce might sound like a kind of pesticide, but it’s an Italian term that roughly translates as sweet and sour. If you’re using a food processor to grate the carrot, do yourself a favour and use it to chop the onion, garlic and parsley too.

  • 1 cup raisins
  • ⅓ cup apple cider vinegar
  • 4-5 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 large onions, finely sliced
  • 3 cloves garlic, finely sliced
  • A large pinch of salt
  • 4 large carrots, peeled and grated
  • A handful fresh flatleaf parsley, finely chopped
  • 450g dried spaghetti

Pour the vinegar over the raisins. Add a splash of boiling water, stir and set aside.

Heat 4Tbsp of the olive oil in a large, heavy pan. Add the onions, garlic and salt. Saute gently for 10 minutes, until the onions are soft and starting to colour. Add the carrot and cook, stirring, for another 3-4 minutes. Add the raisins and their soaking liquid. Toss through and continue cooking until the carrots are soft (just another minute or two). Remove from the heat.

While the onions are cooking, cook the spaghetti in a large pot of boiling salted water until al dente (about 9 minutes). Drain well, reserving about ⅓ cup of the cooking water. Return the carrots pan to the heat and add the spaghetti, the reserved cooking water and the parsley, tossing well to combine. Season well with lots of freshly ground black pepper.

Divide between four warmed waiting bowls and serve immediately. Eat with freshly grated pecorino romano or another hard cheese (not pre-grated, if you please) as you wish.

Fancy more ways to utilise your newfound (or refound) grating skills? You might like this classic French Carrot Salad, or my Ultimate Carrot Cake.

ROASTED GNOCCHI WITH SAUSAGE, TOMATOES AND CHEESE

In recent weeks I’ve developed a somewhat shameful addiction to vacuum-packed gnocchi. You know the stuff I mean – little huhu grubs of potato and god-only-knows-what-else stuffed into flat packets that stack so easily in the cupboard. This gnocchi, which bares only a passing resemblance to the real deal, is the Italian cousin to the mighty two-minute noodle. It’s fast, convenient and – despite negligible nutritional value – can be just what you need in times of trouble.

The trick, of course, is knowing how to pimp them up. Here’s what I did the other night, cleverly combining the contents of the fridge with a packet of gnocchi for a dinner that practically cooked itself and cheered us all up.

Roasted Gnocchi With Sausage And Cherry Tomatoes

Roasted gnocchi with sausage, cherry tomatoes and cheese

Feel free to add any suitable vegetables here – eggplant or zucchini would be excellent when they’re in season. Tucking extra cheese in (feta or halloumi, perhaps?) is a good idea if you’re not fond of sausage.

Extra virgin olive oil

2 red onions, peeled and roughly chopped

1 bulb fennel, trimmed and sliced

1-2 red peppers, cut into chunks

6-8 good quality pork sausages, cut into small pieces (use scissors)

2 cups cherry tomatoes, washed

500g vacuum-packed potato gnocchi

2-3 handfuls finely grated Parmesan cheese

A handful of finely chopped parsley

Heat the oven to 200C. Set a large pot of water to boil over high heat.

Pour a splash (about 1 1/2 Tablespoons) of olive oil in a heavy roasting dish. Add the onions, fennel, peppers and sausage chunks. Toss together, season well with salt and pepper and bake in the oven for 10 minutes.

When the water is boiling, add a handful of salt and the gnocchi. Cook for two minutes (the gnocchi should float to the top), then drain immediately. Tip the gnocchi into the roasting dish of vegetables and sausage. Add the cherry tomatoes and stir together. Drizzle with more olive oil and scatter over the grated cheese. Return the dish to the oven and bake for a further 10-15 minutes, until the sausages are cooked, the cheese is crispy and everything smells delicious. Sprinkle with the chopped parsley and serve immediately with a green salad on the side. Serves 3-4.

Tagliatelle with smoked trout and mascarpone

They say it’s not what you know, it’s who you know that counts. I’ve never really believed that until recently when I acquired three new colleagues at my day job. They’re all clever and interesting people, but one in particular has some very enviable connections and she knows how to work them. She sidled up to me on her first day and said, ‘so, I hear you know about food. Want some smoked fish?’

It turns out that she has a keen angler father who keeps her in ample stocks of beautifully smoked and meticulously boned Taupo trout. Even better for me is that she doesn’t like to eat it. The rest of us keep telling her she’s missing out, but she won’t be swayed. I think this is what’s known in the trade as a win-win. In the meantime, I’m making the most of the catch while I can.

Smoked Trout Pasta

Tagliatelle with smoked trout and mascarpone

This is one of those dishes you can put together while the water boils for the pasta. The hardest bit is not eating all the trout while you wait.

Serves two.

½ cup mascarpone

2 teaspoons Dijon mustard

Finely grated zest and juice of a lemon

2 teaspoons extra virgin olive oil

4 handfuls rocket

150g smoked trout

150g tagliatelle

Put a large pot of water on to boil for the tagliatelle. While you’re waiting, put the mascarpone, mustard, lemon zest and juice and olive oil in a small bowl. Season well with salt and pepper, then whisk to combine and set aside. Flake the trout and stir half of it into the mascarpone mix.

When the water is boiling, add a large spoonful of salt, followed by the pasta. Cook for five minutes (or according to packet directions), then drain, reserving a tablespoon or so of the water. Return to the pot, then toss through most of the rocket and all of the mascarpone. Divide the pasta between two plates and scatter the rest of the rocket and the trout on top. Serve – and eat – immediately.

Got an angler in the family? Here are three more ways with smoked fish to help use up the catch. Failing that, I’m sure I can hook you up with some willing takers!

Pappardelle with tuna and cream

If you read fashion magazines then you’ll know all about the ‘trans-seasonal piece’. This is an item of clothing that will, apparently, protect you from the vagaries of changing weather patterns while still managing to keep you in vogue (though not necessarily in Vogue, if you know what I mean).

A lot less is said about the equally important trans-seasonal meal, which should lift you out of the food rut you’ve been in all season and hint at the changes to come, while still respecting the needs of the moment.

Pappardelle Pasta With Lemon And Cream

Pappardelle with tuna and cream
Tinned tuna is very unfashionable these days but if you can find a sustainably caught brand I think it’s possible to dish it up without a side of guilt. Cream is probably a bit passe too, in some circles, but I don’t give a hoot. This is a great dinner for the middle seasons of spring and autumn, managing to be comforting and fresh in one go.

1 cup/250ml cream
1 packed cup of fresh parsley, leaves only, finely chopped
1 cup finely diced celery
a good pinch of salt and lots of freshly ground black pepper
1 Tbsp good olive oil
finely grated zest and juice of a lemon
2 x 185g tins good quality tuna in oil
Pappardelle – enough for four

Put all ingredients, except the pasta, in a bowl and stir together gently. Taste for seasoning and add more salt, pepper or lemon juice as needed.
Cook the pasta in well-salted water until al dente, drain well, then toss half the sauce through it. Divide between pasta bowls and spoon the remaining sauce on top. Serves four.