And another way for me to get through the huge bunch of asparagus I bought this week. Even better, this recipe calls for the asparagus wood – the fibrous ends that you snap off and leave to rot in the back of your fridge. If you’re anything like me!
This beautiful canapé also offers me the opportunity to share with you an alternative, egg-free, way of making ‘custard’. I learned this technique while working at Vanilla Black, an extremely creative, vegetarian fine dining restaurant in London. This restaurant makes the most interesting vegetarian food I have ever seen or tasted. It’s pretty decadent, but well worth it for a special treat. Although working there was one of the most exhausting experiences of my whole life, I learned an immeasurable amount about new and imaginative takes on familiar ingredients, and for that I am permanently indebted to the staff there who taught me what they knew.
So, this is one of their recipes. I assume it was created by Daniel Mongraw, who was head chef and responsible for all menu development at the time, but I’m not completely sure. He was the most inspiring chef I have ever worked with – a picture of unflappable knowledge and competence, building unique vegetarian dishes from the ground up – creating a vegetarian cuisine, not just a mishmash plucked from various unrelated, vegetarian-friendly ethnicities.
But back to that custard. Asparagus wood is steeped in mixture of milk and a little cream before being blended and strained, to extract maximum flavour from the vegetable cast-off. The resulting mixture is then heated with agar to activate the seaweed gelling agent, before being left to set. Once solid, it is blended in a high powered blender, resulting in a beautifully thick, smooth cream in the palest green. The perfect complement to the pink of the radishes.
We also made a vegan version of this ‘custard’ at the restaurant – a simple matter of substituting the milk and cream for equal weight of soya milk. The flavour was pretty similar.
One minor word of warning. It is important that you measure the amount of liquid you end up with after straining out the asparagus and adjust the agar proportionally if necessary. Time to remember how to work out percentages! The amount of agar listed in the recipe is appropriate for the amount of liquid that is also listed. If you have less liquid, the custard will set harder and be grainy after blending. If you have more liquid, the mixture will not set properly and the result will be too liquidy. No one wants that.
You will need a micro scale to accurately measure the agar and salt quantities for this recipe (what can I say, it’s a Vanilla Black recipe!). They are unbelievably cheap now, about £5, and I use one all the time for measuring small quantities. Bigger domestic scales are never accurate for small amounts.
This custard is pretty salty as it is designed to be used very sparingly in something like a canapé. If you have other plans for it, you may wish to season to taste before you add the agar, instead of following the seasoning instructions in the recipe.
You could use this asparagus ‘custard’ for any number of delicious dishes, but here I have paired it with lightly toasted slivers of sourdough, a shaving of ‘Parmesan’ cheese, a few rounds of peppery radish and a sprig of fresh thyme. Oh, and cocktails of course.
- 100g asparagus wood
- 200g whole milk
- 65g double cream
- 2.5g sea salt
- 2.3g agar
- Add all the ingredients except the agar to a medium saucepan and bring to the boil. Stir the mixture a few times as it heats with a rubber spatula to stop the bottom scorching.
- Remove from the heat and leave to infuse for 30 minutes.
- Blend as finely as possible in a liquidiser or using an immersion blender.
- Strain through a fine-mesh sieve, back into the saucepan (make sure there are no residual fibres in the pan). Add the agar and bring to the boil again (this activates the agar), stirring with a spatula as it reaches the boil. Make sure the mixture really bubbles for at least 30 seconds before removing from the heat.
- Pour the mixture into a container, cool to room temperature and place in the fridge to set. This cooling process takes 2-3 hours.
- When it is fully set, blend the custard to a smooth cream.
- To make this recipe vegan, substitute the same weight of milk and cream for soya milk.
- Can be made several days ahead.
- 450g sourdough bread or baguette
- 100g 'Parmesan'
- 350g/about 30 radishes
- 1 recipe of asparagus custard (above)
- fresh herbs to decorate (I used thyme)
- Cut the bread or baguette very thinly. A thin baguette is easiest for making complete canapé rounds, otherwise cut the larger slices of bread into bite-sized pieces. Toast for a few minutes in a hot oven (about 200c). If you put the bread pieces directly on the oven shelf, you will not need to turn them.
- When cool, shave small pieces of 'Parmesan' with a vegetable peeler and lay over the toasts.
- Slice the radishes very thinly - this is easiest with a mandoline - and add to the Parmesan.
- Top with a blob of asparagus custard. This is easiest with a piping bag, but a small spoon will also do.
- Finish with a tiny sprig or leaf of fresh herb.
- The complete canapés will keep for an hour or two out of the fridge after making. Any more and the radishes may start to droop.
- The custard can be made several days ahead.