Photo: Chris Wiles Photgraphy
(I said TARTS…. Are you friggin’ deaf?):
A wonderful starter.
The instructions are a little lengthy, but it’s worth it in the end.
Prep: 15 mins.
Cooking: 30 mins.
Serves: 8 – so for two people just use a quarter of the recipe – except that you won’t buy a quarter of the pastry, so you just have to invite more people round – or eat more!
Rating: 3: Moderate
- 4 x 8 = 32 asparagus spears (according to thickness and budget), with a few spares ready, ‘just in case’. See the text about buying your asparagus. (If you buy 40 and all turn out perfectly, you can put 5 spears on each tart – bonus)
- 1 pack ready-made puff pastry
- Plain flour for rolling out
- 2 red onions – white/yellow if necessary but red onions are generally nicer.
- 1 egg
- A little Parmesan cheese to sprinkle on just before baking (optional).
- Potato peeler
- Frying pan
- Rolling pin or alternative
- Baking tray
Take the ready-made puff pastry out of the fridge at least a couple of hours before you start to do anything as it needs to be at room temperature.
At the same time, ensure that you have enough asparagus spears. 3-4 for each tart (2 or 3 if they are thick spears), one or two tarts per person for the starter. Have a few spare as well because you may well have some casualties in the process.
Processing the asparagus spears:
Asparagus tells you where it starts to become woody in its stem because as you bend it, it snaps. That determines its useable length. Trouble is, they all need to be equal length. If it’s all the same batch of asparagus there should be no problem, but they may not be. Try to buy the same length and thickness of asparagus in the same packaging – that’ll help.
- Trim all the asparagus to the same length. (Don’t throw the cut ends away! – see later.)
- Using a potato peeler, peel the outer skin from the asparagus below the spear itself. Don’t decimate it, just peel lightly and sensitively – it makes the asparagus much more tender when it is eaten. Don’t throw away the peelings or the trimmed-off stems – they can be used for veg stock or asparagus soup later on (asparagus is too friggin’ expensive to bin any waste – see later).
Blanching the asparagus:
- Have a bowl of iced water ready. Boil the kettle.
- Pour the boiling water from the kettle into a large saucepan. Lightly salt it. Bring it back to the boil and plunge the asparagus into the boiling water and keep on the high heat for 1 minute.
- After 1 minute, use a draining spoon (if you have one) to lift the asparagus out of the pan and plunge it all into the iced water. You may need to do this in several batches, in which case have freshly iced water ready for each batch. Use the same boiling water for all batches.
- At the end, don’t tip away the hot water; it can be used as the base for the stock of soup. Don’t waste taste! (Asparagus is too friggin’ expensive to bin any waste – including the blanching water). Ok, asparagus duly blanched. I know, it’s a friggin’ phaph to do, but it’s all worth it in the end.
Now for the onion confit to go under the asparagus.
- Peel and very thinly slice both of the red onions – no, thinner than that.
Sharpen your cook’s knife.
- Ok, now REALLY THINLY slice the onions. No, don’t chop them, thinly slice them. That’s better. Your knife skills are improving……..you’s a’doin’ ok now.
- Put the frying pan onto the heat, oil it and add a knob of butter.
- Turn it down to a medium heat and put in the sliced onions.
- Gently sauté the onions (low-ish heat, gently frying, keeping them moving to spread the cooking….) without colouring them. Gently does it. They need to be quite well cooked but not at all browned. Almost transparent. It’ll take quite a time if you are doing it right – probably 15 minutes. Don’t leave the pan on the heat and go to the loo or answer the door – if you must go away, turn out the heat.
- When the onions have got to the stage where they are almost see-through, pop them into a dish and put them aside, ready for the fiddly assembly process….and don’t you keep tasting ‘em to see if they’re ok. I know they are rather nice and sweet and they taste very nice – but we need some left for the tarts, dammit.
- Sprinkle some flour onto a cleared, thoroughly cleaned and dried large area of kitchen surface.
- Take the inch-thick block of puff pastry out of its packet and plop it onto the floured area. I didn’t say DROP it! Now clear up where all the flour has landed!
- Flour the top of the pastry. Use the rolling pin (or substitute) to roll out the pastry away from you then towards you. It should have expanded into an oblong whilst becoming thinner.
- Pick up the pastry, turn it through 90 degrees on the board, and then turn it over, trapping some of the flour under it.
- Lightly flour the top of the pastry. The oblong that you made should now be orientated the other way around.
- Roll again and make it go back into a square.
- Repeat this several times until the pastry is about 4-5mm thick. You should be able to get 8 tarts out of the pack of pastry. Use a spear of asparagus to help you measure the right size of pastry to get 8 tarts, each to take 4 spears and to leave about 10mm all around the edge of each.
- Alternatively, buy it ready rolled out. It comes in a long roll. It’s dead easy then.
- Cut the pastry into the 8 oblong tart shapes but leave them all where they are – do not move them.
- Score the pastry one centimetre from the edge. This scored border line allows the pastry to rise – see the diagram for exactly what to do.
- Using a teaspoon, spread the onion confit (that you so cleverly, skilfully and wonderfully made earlier) evenly over the centre of the pastry of each tart inside the scored line, leaving a clear 1cm edge on each without onion. The confit can be about 4 mm thick if you have enough. Season each onion patch with coarsely ground black pepper. Lay 3, 4 or 5 spears on each tart, atop the onion confit, according to how many you have and the thickness of the spears.
- Of course, if you want to make one big round tart, just unroll your pastry, still on its paper and lay it onto a round tin.
- Take the egg, break it into a mug and whisk it with a fork. I doubt that you’ll have a pastry brush (if you have, use it) so use a teaspoon and spoon a little of the egg wash onto the edges of the tarts, spreading it with a very carefully washed forefinger all over each of the four edges of each of the eight tarts. Try to use it all. Don’t waste it; it cost money. Sprinkle just a little finely grated parmesan cheese over the stems of the asparagus on each tart.
- Using the knife, slide under one tart and ease it away from the rest. Be gentle. Do this to each of the remaining seven tarts. Don’t lift any up as yet – of course, if you are doing one big round tart, there’s no cutting, no lifting – in fact no tarting about at all!
- Pre-heat the oven to gas Mk 5. Carefully transfer each of the eight tarts (using a broad knife, or a fish slice, or a spatula, or….) to an oiled baking tray. You can bake them on baking paper instead, oiled and put onto a baking sheet.
- Bake them for 20 minutes. Inspect to see if they have puffed and golden brown edges. If not, bake for a little longer.
- Serve on heated plates with a little Hollandaise sauce if possible. Don’t try to make Hollandaise sauce at the moment; it’s a bit tricky – you are still learning. What a starter it is.