There are recipes in this world which are hurried through the dining room with an aura of devout reverence, as their presence at the table embodies the pinnacle of gastronomic endeavour. I have always held tempura in such lofty esteem, regarding it a delicacy of such immeasurable finesse, that it would be sacrilege for a homely cook of my standing to even attempt it. God forbid. Yet, after an afternoon of frolicking with flour, ice cold sparkling water and the most beautifully fine, delicately fresh, organic British asparagus, tempura’s spell has been broken. I now feel comfortable sharing this delicacy with you, fully believing that it is within the reach of every single one of us, because it is beautifully simple. Ladies and Gentlemen, I bring you Spelt Tempura Asparagus with Aioli.
Spring, along with the asparagus season, has well and truly sprung. The past few days of high twenties heat have been exactly what my soul needed, because I can’t stand the cold. The fantasy of continental food is so quintessentially endearing to me, I often wonder if I were meant to live in a warm climate. I can lose myself endlessly for hours in heart-warming dreams of cooking up a banquet of Southern French dishes and engaging in a pedestrian paced lunch, whilst basking in the Mistral-cooled shade.
My diet comprises predominantly non-English recipes. Taking influence from Middle Eastern, Continental and Indian dishes, with anything regarded as quintessentially English barely getting a look in. Traditionally English food fails to excite me, despite the concept of gorging on fish and chips being imagined as a heady treat, I just don’t do it. Meanwhile, the English food scene burns brighter than the sun, but the concept of English food leaves me colder than the dark side of the moon.
Only this week I’ve been planning to live almost solely on Indian food, a combination of vegetable-loaded kitcheree, chana dal and vankaya pulusu, an aubergine stew from Andhra Pradesh, with plenty of basmati rice. Just the talk of these dishes has sent me all misty eyed, whisking me straight back to sitting at a roadside sweet shop in Jharkhand, eating sweet, milky rice pudding. Whilst I still live in the UK, the closest I can get to these climates is recreating their food.
I took a stumble through Borough Market last week, under the guise of being a reconnaissance mission to discover producers of delightful foods, seeking an ideal partner for my next food photography client. Such a mission was folly, because rather than attempting to engage anyone in conversation, I simply floated around the market, fantasising about unlimited shopping budgets, romantically dreaming of slow cooked Spanish, French or Italian dishes as I eyed up the splendiferous produce.
Borough Market does one thing exceedingly well, which is championing genuinely good produce. You can find some of the best food in the country amongst the alleyways and archways of deep green stalls and the trundling cacophony of market life, railway lines and a tourists a go-go. Last week there was a recurring theme; asparagus. The 2017 British Asparagus season has brushed the dust off it’s shoulders and jumped into action, providing one of the spine-tinglingly exciting pieces of fruit and veg, that I spend all winter dreaming of. Like great British strawberries and cherries, asparagus must be taken advantage of when it’s there, because it’s a delightful part of our gastronomic cultural heritage.
This journey has married three things together, bringing today’s recipe. The championing of fantastic, fresh, British asparagus, along with quelling the myth that tempura is best left to the professionals. It’s easy to make and will make your guests inhale deeply when you bring it to the table. To balance this out, I’ve made aioli, a French sauce of powerful simplicity, which satisfied my fantastical dreams of Southern France. Bring all of these together and you have spelt tempura asparagus with aioli. Put on your sunglasses and enjoy.
Spelt Tempura Asparagus with Aioli
By Gavin Wren
Uses a large frying pan, pestle and mortar, bowl and whisk
3 garlic cloves
Pinch of salt
1 large egg yolk
250ml olive oil
Large bunch of fine asparagus spears
100g white (refined) spelt flour
2 tablespoons cornflour
200ml ice cold sparkling water
500ml vegetable oil
Roughly chop the garlic cloves and place in a mortar with a pinch of salt. Grind with the pestle to a paste. Add the egg yolk and grind until well mixed. Transfer to a clean bowl.
Add a few drops of the olive oil and whisk well. Slowly add a few more drops of oil, whisking well. Continue like this, the mixture should thicken.
If your aioli doesn’t thicken, you can save it with another egg yolk. Get a clean bowl, whisk the the new egg yolk, then add a teaspoon of your broken previous mixture and whisk until thick. Add between a teaspoon and a tablespoon at a time, it should thicken and become a lovely rich, garlicky sauce.
To make the tempura, put the vegetable oil into a wide frying pan, so that it’s about 1-2cm deep. Heat to 400ºF and keep at that temperature. Alternatively, use a deep fat fryer with fresh oil.
Prepare your asparagus by snapping the bottom of the stalks off where they naturally break when bent.
Sieve the flours into a bowl. Whisk the cold water in gently, until barely combined, do not heavily beat the mixture.
Roll spears of asparagus into the batter then straight into the hot oil. Don’t put a handful into the oil together as they will stick together, place them one by one. Make sure the oil keeps up to temperature as you cook. The spears will need about 60 seconds before they are cooked, remove them and place on a plate lined with kitchen towel, then serve with the aioli to dip into!