The Turkish word for asparagus is kuşkonmaz, which literally translates as ‘the bird cannot land’. Most people think this is because a bird couldn’t perch on the wavy fern fronds, but the awful truth is that birds here in Turkey have never been able to afford the rent.
When we first came to Turkey, we lived near the fish market in Galata – one of Istanbul’s oldest quarters. As well as amazing fish, the market also had the best vegetable stand in the city – they sold celery, fennel, fresh coriander and ginger years before they became available more widely. All of those things are still difficult to get, but we are lucky enough to have an enterprising greengrocer in this town, so we have fairly reliable supplies.
The first time I saw asparagus on the veggie stall in the fish market, it was nearly £50 a bunch. It was not grown as a crop anywhere in Turkey, but a few enterprising (and presumably wealthy) private growers kept some ferns in their Bosphorus-side glasshouses. Naturally, I declined at those prices, and decided it was no wonder that birds couldn’t land – they probably would have keeled over in shock.
So, about 12 years ago, Robin decided to plant an asparagus bed. The dormant crowns were delivered to the Cheshire offices of our good friends, the Lees, for onward travel to Turkey. Mrs L phoned me in a panic to say ‘Jayne, I’ve peeped inside and they are not dormant, they are deceased.’ She claims she then gave them CPR – I am sure she did, she is a very caring person.
The crowns were indeed only dormant (or had been given the kiss of life by Mrs L) and three years later we began to cut our own asparagus. I find it fascinating that a spear that has only just peeped through the soil by around an inch in the morning can be 20cm tall by sundown.
We tend to cut a few spears each day and save them up until we have enough for a meal – the spears keep fantastically well in a bag in the fridge. This weekend I wanted to make something for Sunday supper where the asparagus was the star of the show. I have one of those tranche-shaped tart tins, so decided that a posh tart would fit the bill. If you only have a round tin, that is absolutely fine – in that case, it is easier to cut the spears into smaller pieces so that you can scatter them fairly evenly over the tart.
I paired the asparagus with some leeks and onions that I had cooked in a little oil and butter, with some fresh thyme leaves, until they were silky soft. I decided against cheese, as I didn’t want to overwhelm the asparagus. If you would like a cheesy note, by all means grate some over before you pour on the custard, but something mild is definitely called for here, not a super-strong Cheddar. A grating of Parmesan or Pecorino after the tart is cooked would be another option. I settled for keeping the tart simple and serving it with a rocket and walnut salad with shavings of Mihaliç, which is reminiscent of Pecorino. It is important to ensure that both the leek and onion mix and the custard are well seasoned to prevent the final dish from being bland.
Serves 4 (or, in our case, three very greedy people)
You will need an oblong tranche tin or a small round tart tin, preferably loose-bottomed
Shortcrust pastry to line your tin – store-bought is fine (or you will need around a third of the pastry in this recipe)
1 tablespoon oil plus a knob of butter
1 medium onion, peeled and very thinly sliced
1 large or 2 small leeks, peeled, halved lengthways and sliced thinly
A few fresh thyme or tarragon leaves
1 bunch of asparagus
2 whole eggs plus 1 egg yolk
A generous pinch of nutmeg
Salt and pepper
A little grated mild cheese (optional – see note above)
First line your tin with the pastry and refrigerate while you make the filling. Make sure to thoroughly patch any tears or cracks, or your filling will leak out.
Heat the oil and butter in a saute pan, then add the sliced onions and leeks with a pinch of salt. Cook over a gentle heat, covered, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are very soft. Set aside to cool.
Trim the woody ends from the asparagus (the easiest way to do this is to just bend the stalk end of the asparagus between your finger and thumb and it will naturally snap where the woody part ends – usually an inch or so up the spear). Discard the woody stumps and cut the asparagus into pieces that are just slightly shorter than the width of your tin (see photo below).
Cook the asparagus in a little boiling salted water for a few minutes (add the tips once the rest of the spears are almost cooked), then refresh in cold water. This helps the asparagus to retain its bright green colour and prevents it from over-cooking.
Pre-heat the oven to 185C and put a baking sheet or shallow roasting tray into the oven to heat up.
Pour the cream and milk into a measuring jug, then add the eggs and yolk and whisk until smooth. Season with salt and pepper and a generous pinch of nutmeg.
Spread the onion and leek mixture over the bottom of the pastry case, then arrange the asparagus spears on top. If you are using cheese, grate a little over the top of the asparagus at this point.
Pour the egg mixture carefully over the filling, then stand the tart on a sheet of foil (to catch any leaks) on the pre-heated baking sheet or tray – this will ensure the base of the tart is cooked and will prevent any soggy bottoms.
Bake for around 25 minutes, but check after 20. The tart is done when the custard has just very gently set and is starting to colour a little. You may need to turn it around for the last few minutes if one side is colouring more than the other. You only want it to be very pale golden, not browned.
Leave to cool before serving just warm or at room temperature.