Here goes. Episode number something-or-other in the series of "Elly tries, yet again, to like asparagus". As I've mentioned before, I am not the biggest fan of those green spears that, come late spring, set most food-lovers' hearts ablaze with excitement. Yet I feel compelled to like asparagus, because it's one of those 'things' that any self-respecting gastronome should go mad for, along with the first rhubarb of the season, real English strawberries, and purple sprouting broccoli. I therefore feel it is my mission to devise recipes that will render the green stuff a little more palatable; I am usually put off by its bitterness and almost sour flavour (maybe there's something in my saliva that reacts badly with it - I know this is the reason a lot of people can't stand coriander). So when I saw the first spears of the season at the market the other day, I snapped them up (at vast expense - how is it that English-grown produce can be three times the price of stuff flown in from Spain?) and set about devising a way of making the most of such a widely-revered crop.
I can usually enjoy asparagus when coupled with something salty to offset its bitterness. Parma ham is a classic partner, and I also thought that the salty, savouriness of a risotto would provide the perfect blanket for the green spears. Quail eggs were not really essential to the dish, but I discovered a few days ago that Sainsburys sells them (I'd only ever seen them at the market before), and they are so lovely that I just had to include them. Besides, eggs and asparagus are another classic combination (although one that, alone, I find rather cloying).
I used pearl barley for this risotto, rather than rice, because I love its texture and nutty flavour, which I thought would balance well with the salty parma ham and eggs. I used the same technique as for a rice-based risotto, but stirred for about a million hours more. Barley takes longer than you'd think (or wish, when ravenous) to cook. My friend Ben (who has berated me on several occasions for never being mentioned on my blog, so I am now rectifying this situation) stood there harassing me in the manner of a small child in the back of a car: "Is it ready yet? Is it ready now?"
I put some of the parma ham in the risotto towards the end of the cooking time, and the rest I dry-fried in a pan until it became crispy and I could crumble it over the risotto. I hard-boiled the quail eggs and used them as a garnish. I was annoyed that I overcooked them, because I wanted them soft-boiled, but I am writing this two weeks later, having had soft-boiled quail eggs yesterday, and I now know that they are nigh on impossible to peel when soft-boiled, so maybe the extra cooking time was a good thing.
I wanted to make the most of the expensive asparagus in the risotto, so I used every bit of the stem: the tough end of the stalks went in with the stock to add extra flavour; the base of the stalk I sliced finely and stirred into the onions at the beginning of the cooking time, and the fragile tips went into the mixture towards the end of cooking, so they softened in the heat of the final ladleful of stock. Some grated parmesan, black pepper, and that was it. Actually it didn't even need parmesan; it was salty enough from the stock and the ham.
The verdict? Very enjoyable. In fact, it was delicious. The combination of barley, stock, salty ham and tiny eggs transforms asparagus into something superb. It would work well with normal risotto rice, as well, and bacon instead of parma ham. The eggs are optional, but I just love the look of them perched atop a mound of glistening creamy rice. Be warned that they are possibly the biggest faff in the world to peel; start at least ten minutes before you want to eat them.
I think Ben also enjoyed it. I hope the mention of him here will make up for the countless times I have omitted his name in descriptions of dinners I've cooked for him. He provides excellent risotto-stirring entertainment by regaling me with his entrepreneurial ideas for iPhone-related gadgets...but I will say no more, because he's certain one such idea will be the making of his millionaire future, and I wouldn't want to spoil that for him by giving the idea away.
What I will give away, however, is the recipe for this risotto. Because it was very tasty and I think will win over any fellow asparagus-sceptics - are there any of you out there?! I sometimes I feel I am the only one...
Pearl barley risotto with asparagus, quail eggs and parma ham (serves 4):
1 large onion, finely chopped
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
A bundle of asparagus
350g pearl barley (or risotto rice, in which case cook for less time)
A glass of white wine
2 litres chicken stock
Parma ham (quantities are up to you - I used about 8 slices)
12 quail eggs
Parmesan, to serve
Chives, lemon thyme or parsley, finely chopped (or all three)
Bring the stock to the boil in a saucepan. Snap the tough ends off the asparagus, and put them in the stock. Keep it at a gentle simmer.
Heat some olive oil in a pan and saute the onion and garlic until softened. Slice the asparagus stalks into thin rounds and add to the onion and garlic - reserve the tips for later. Add a knob of butter to the pan and leave to melt, then stir in the barley and coat in the butter.
Pour in the wine, and let bubble until it has been absorbed by the barley. Add the stock, a ladle at a time, stirring until it has all been absorbed before adding the next. This will take a good 40 minutes or more for barley, about 25 for rice. The barley should be soft but still a little bit nutty. You might not need all the stock, or you might need more, in which case use hot water if you run out. Don't add the tough asparagus ends along with the stock - they're just to add flavour.
Towards the end of cooking time, dry-fry half the parma ham in a frying pan until crispy, then remove to some kitchen paper. Stir the rest of the ham into the risotto, along with the asparagus tips. Taste and season. Stir in your choice of herbs - I used chives because they go so well with eggs and ham.
For the quail eggs, bring a pan of water to the boil. Drop in the eggs and cook for 2 minutes, then remove to a bowl of cold water. Peel and halve them.
To serve, place the risotto in bowls and crumble the crispy parma ham over the top. Garnish with the halved eggs. Serve with grated parmesan.