Delia

Gratin of Asparagus with Cheese and Poached Eggs

Today is Tuesday and it’s the first time the relentless rain has stopped. Complaints? No, not from us. Ever since we visited a desert community living in extreme poverty in Peru where it had not rained in living memory and water had to be shipped in in tankers once a week, wet days are no longer cause for complaint but gratitude. That said, life in the country is rather tense right now and I’m sure the noise of the city could never be this stressful. Hopkins in his beautiful poem May Magnificat questions: ‘What is Spring? Growth in everything – flesh and fleece, fur and feather, grass and green world all together. All together? Hmm, not sure. My 86-year-old mother is doing a round-the-clock watch to make sure the magpie nesting in the farmer’s yew does not, as is its wont, steal baby chicks from birds nesting in her garden. She, with wooden spoon and saucepan – joined by the ever-watchful male blackbirds screeching for all their worth, have been successful so far. The tension here is on the pond: one moorhen with two chicks, one mallard with five teenagers and one with about a dozen fluffy two-day olds. Our cats, Freddie and Flo, are on high alert and we just pray that it’s their sleep-time when the mothers march their chicks this way. Luckily the rain has burst the banks of the pond somewhat so the idea of sitting in the reeds with their bums in the water has not so far produced much commitment. In the kitchen we’re awash with some very fine asparagus and are concentrating on our annual May feast. Yes, we know that with asparagus you’re supposed to tell it how it is and serve it unadulterated, with just some softly melting butter. But when you’ve been there and done it three or four times, you do need to move on a bit. So today we’re serving it with softly poached eggs, a mild and melting cheese sauce, a sprinkling of parmesan and a quick flash under the grill. If you have some of your favourite bread to hand (lots of it) and a bold, chunky crisp green salad (as opposed to a limp one) you will be well pleased.


Serves 2



Gratin of Asparagus with Cheese and Poached Eggs
Ingredients
 1 lb (450 g) untrimmed English asparagus
 4 large, very fresh eggs
 1 oz (25 g) butter
 1 oz (25 g) sauce flour
 8 fl oz (225 ml) milk
 2 oz (50 g) Gruyere cheese, grated
 1 heaped tablespoon freshly grated parmesan
 cayenne pepper
 salt and freshly milled black pepper
Equipment
You’ll also need a gratin dish 10 x 8 inches (25.5 x 20 cm) and 1½ inches (4 cm) deep, well buttered.

Method

Every year we re-think our basic cooking of asparagus, but always return to steaming. The less it comes into contact with the water, the better, and peeling asparagus (so favoured by chefs) is not for us as it encourages the tender stalks to absorb more water. So what we do is break off the stems by taking each stalk in both hands, bending it and snapping off the woody ends.

Place the asparagus in a fan steamer but don’t cook them yet. Now pre-heat the grill to its highest setting and fill a small frying pan with boiling water from the kettle. Place it on the heat and when some bubbles begin to form turn it down to its lowest setting. Break the eggs and carefully drop each one into the water. Time them for one minute with the water gently simmering, then remove the pan from the heat, put a lid on and put a timer on for ten minutes.Next melt the butter in a small saucepan, stir in the flour till smooth then gradually add the milk, whisking continually until you have a smooth sauce – it’s too thick at this stage but needs to left with the heat turned down to its lowest to cook the flour.

Now add boiling water to the asparagus pan, place the fan steamer in it, sprinkle salt over the asparagus, cover with a lid and steam for 4 to 6 minutes (depending on the thickness of the stalks). Test them with a skewer and when they’re cooked, remove them (with tongs if possible) to the gratin dish, reserving half a dozen stalks to garnish later. Add ¼ pint (150 ml) of the steaming water to the sauce along with the grated Gruyere and a seasoning of salt and pepper.

Using a draining spoon and a wad of kitchen paper, remove each egg carefully – allowing any excess water to be absorbed by the paper before you place it on top of the asparagus. Then pour the cheese sauce over the eggs and asparagus, and garnish first with the reserved asparagus stalks then with a sprinkling of parmesan and a good pinch of cayenne. Place the gratin dish near to the grill heat and let it brown very quickly, for not more than a minute.If this looks in the written word a bit long-winded, let me assure you it only takes about 15 to 20 minutes from start to finish!

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