Asparagus is one of the few British delicacies that should be treasured – it’s so perfectly suited to our climate that to eat it from other countries is like adultery… okay, okay, that’s a little extreme I know but for me it’s all part of the appeal – the anticipation of its arrival and then to feast upon it whilst it’s in season. To eat some that has been wrapped in plastic and flown here from half way across the world at some other time of the year would just ruin the whole experience.
I’ve always been a little apprehensive about giving up some of my growing space for asparagus for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it permanently takes up quite a lot of room and secondly, the waiting… 3 years from planting your first seed to eating any of your crop always seemed to me like an unimaginable amount of patience, given how little space we have to grow our food. But last season when I was browsing the seed catalogue and saw the packets of seeds at just £1.20 (currently we pay on average £2.50 for a bunch of English asparagus), I thought that I just had to give it a go. Once the plants are established they will provide asparagus for eight weeks every season, for more than 20 years. Anyway, we have 30 plants in the ground, they’re growing beautifully and the waiting game has begun, so in the meantime I’ve been purchasing some from my local greengrocer.
I was pleasantly surprised at how much my children have enjoyed eating asparagus. As it’s been nearly a year since they last ate it I thought that there might have been a bit of reluctance to try it or a dislike of the taste or texture from at least one of them. However, I was welcomed with ‘wow… Mum’s cooking crocodiles’ tails for dinner’ and they’ve thoroughly enjoyed eating this marvellous vegetable in every form that I’ve cooked it.
Asparagus is one of those vegetables that can really take centre stage, it doesn’t need anything fancy to make it delicious – just steamed and tossed in some garlic, olive oil and crunchy sea salt and it tastes amazing but if your wanting to make something really special then this tart is wonderful.
This recipe makes a hearty meal for 6 adults, served with your favourite salads on the side and maybe some new potatoes. If that’s too much for your gathering then it makes excellent leftovers too, just heat it up in a moderate oven for 10 minutes and who doesn’t love a tasty home-made tart at the drop of a hat?
People often shy away from making their own puff pastry, presuming it’s too much work and to be honest I never make puff pastry the traditional way (I don’t have the time and anyway I find it too greasy) but rough puff pastry is quick and easy. You won’t get totally perfect, uniform layers but it will be buttery and flaky and much lighter as it uses half the fat of traditional puff pastry recipes.
Being dairy free we use Naturli’ Vegan Block (available at Sainsburys) – it’s a completely natural, soy and palm oil free butter substitute and it makes perfect pastry but if you’re not dairy free or vegan then obviously butter works perfect too.
I’ve made this kind of tart many times in the past and normally it’s paired with a gooey, soft cheese, like goat’s cheese. Being dairy free, that’s not an option for us now so I’ve gone for an onion puree and pesto combination. This may seem a little crazy but the onion puree adds a light and sweet creaminess, and the pesto adds the savoury umami that you’d get with cheese.
As for the pesto, go with whatever you have to hand. Traditionally pesto is made with pinenuts, basil, garlic, lemon, olive oil and parmesan. I’ve used pumpkin seeds and wild garlic here as the base as it’s what I had to hand but we make pesto out of a whole range of nuts, seeds and herbs and they generally taste great. Instead of parmesan we use nutritional yeast which gives it the savouriness of cheese.
Dairy-free/Vegan Asparagus Tart
For the pastry
- 400g white spelt flour or plain white flour
- 200g Naturli’ Vegan Block or butter, at room temperature – diced
- 190ml cold water
- a pinch of salt
egg wash or aquafaba (liquid from can of chickpeas) for glazing
For the dairy-free pesto
- 50g pumpkin or sunflower seeds
- 1 handful of wild garlic or basil
- 1 clove of garlic
- 1 tbsp nutritional yeast
- zest and juice of half a lemon
- pinch of salt
- 4 tbsp olive oil or sunflower oil
- 4 onions
- 4 cloves of garlic
- 500g cherry tomatoes
- balsamic vinegar
- 2 bunches of asparagus
- 50g chopped pistacios
- olive oil
Heat the oven to 150°c/300°f/Gas mark 2.
Chop up the onions and garlic and cook on a low heat, in a heavy bottomed saucepan with a good glug of olive oil and a generous pinch of sea salt, stirring occasionally. The trick is to cook your onions gently so that they confit and caramelise into a sweet sticky moreishness. Taste the onions after about 30 minutes, they should taste super sweet, if not, just cook for a little longer. When sweet and sticky blend into a smooth sauce with an immersion/stick blender.
Slice the tomatoes in half and spread them out on a baking tray. Drizzle with olive oil and balsamic vinegar and sprinkle with sea salt. Put them in the bottom of the oven and there they can stay, slowly roasting until you need them or for up to an hour. If you cook them quickly they will burst from the skins and release their water, resulting in a load of tomatoes swimming around in tomato juice. If you cook them slowly, the skins stay intact and the juice concentrates within them.
Whilst your tomatoes and onions are doing their thing, get on with the pastry… put the flour and butter into a bowl with a generous pinch of salt and the water. Gently mix it all together, no kneeding required, you want to keep the butter in big chunks and the flour seperate, just gently bring it into a ball. Dump this messy lump onto the work surface and roll it out into a rough rectangle. Fold the top and bottom in by a third, as if you are folding a letter, then turn the dough through 90 degrees. Repeat this rolling, folding, and turning a further 3 times, wrap up and rest in the freezer for 20 minutes (or in the fridge if you want to make it in advance).
For the pesto, put the seeds in a high speed blender and blend until finely ground. Add the rest of the ingredients and blend until combined. For this recipe I like my pesto to be quite thick and spreadable but if you prefer yours more runny then just add more oil.
Check the tomatoes, if they are lovely and soft, take them out of the oven, if not then leave them in a little longer and turn the temperature up to 180°C/350°F/gas mark 4.
Take the pastry from the freezer/fridge, cut in half and roll out each into a rectangle measuring about 20cm by 30cm and a little less than ½ cm thick. Score a box about 1cm from the edge all the way around. Give your pastry a nice shiny finish by glazing with egg wash or if you’re vegan you can use water from a can of chickpeas.
Bake in the oven for approximately 20 minutes, or until golden. When cooked, remove from the oven and turn the heat down to 160°C.
To assemble the tart… spread your onion cream on the pastry, mix 2 tbsp of pesto with the asparagus (don’t forget to snap the woody ends off of the bottom), liberally coating it all over and put it on top of the onion cream. Now dot your lovely slow-roasted tomatoes on top and sprinkle with some chopped pistacios.
Bake in the oven for around 15 minutes but bear in mind this timing can vary immensely depending on how thick your asparagus is – very thin asparagus will be ready in about 7-10 minutes whereas thicker spears could take nearly 20 minutes. Lay your favourite salad on the table and enjoy…