Like an installation artist and with the drama of an Italian chef, Graeme Cawsey is assembling plates of colourful food starring spears of green.
"I wanted to emphasise the asparagus," he says.
This week, he has used the in- season vegetable to make a fish dish using pan-seared rig, a meal featuring homemade pasta and chicken, and a classic quiche.
To make his creations, Graeme has all the ingredients in containers ready for assembling.
The cooked asparagus is fresh, green and crisp.
Graeme likes to blanch his in boiling salted water infused with a dash of olive oil and the peel of a lemon, which has been cut into slices.
The best way to cook asparagus is in a tall saucepan.
Tie asparagus into a bundle with string and place into pot, with tips up. Blanch for about five minutes then take out, strain and plunge into a bowl of iced water to stop the cooking process.
"There's nothing worse than over-cooked asparagus - it goes soft and mushy. It should be crisp."
The blanch-and-ice method helps the asparagus stay green. "They used to put in bicarbonate soda and that would make it fluorescent green, but it would destroy the Vitamin C."
Another tip with asparagus is to take the ends off.
Simply hold an asparagus spear in your hand and press the tough end with your thumb.
That should snap if off in exactly the right place, leaving behind a tender spear.
If you don't want to waste the coarse ends, use them for making asparagus soup, Graeme says.
For the chicken dish, he has made his own pasta, something he does regularly at home using a machine.
The dough has few ingredients - flour, egg, salt and water - but it does require some elbow grease. The initial making of the dough can be done in a food processor or mixture; then it's kneading time.
"When you see those big Italian mamas with muscled forearms you know why," Graeme says.
"There's no secret to kneading - just push, pull and squash."
People often ask him how he knows when the pasta dough has been kneaded enough.
"You know when to stop when the dough feels smooth and silky, instead of rough and floury."
The dough must be wrapped and put in the fridge to rest for two hours. "It needs to relax."
Graeme uses a machine to make his pasta, but says people can use a rolling pin.
"The hard job is getting it thin. It needs to be only 2mm. The secret when using a rolling pin is to cut it into small lots and roll it out."
To cut the strands of pasta, people will need to use a sharp knife.
The chicken dish is all about putting it together. Graeme mixes everything in a large pan - the pasta, roast chicken, asparagus, hot lemon dressing and serves.
Another quick meal is the pan- seared rig, which only takes two or three minutes on each side.
He smokes the tomato as per the recipe, filling the kitchen with the aroma of burnt manuka chips, ready to make the salsa.
Then the next assemblage begins.
Fish and cool salad ingredients - avocado, cucumber and asparagus - are joined by the hot red of tomato salsa to create a fresh, healthy colourful plate.
While the pasta and rig dishes are dinner-time specials, the quiche is a classic lunch offering.
The only thing people need to worry about with the latter is getting the pastry right.
If it shrinks during baking, it's possible there wasn't enough fat or eggs, the flour was too strong, it was not rested enough before baking or the dough was over- mixed.
If dark in colour, the oven may be too hot.
And if the pastry is too crumbly, there may be too much fat and the dough was under-mixed.
All of these faults can be remedied by checking the ingredient amounts, mixing more or less and correcting the oven temperature.
Once you've got the perfect pastry, line your tin and add the filling, making sure to evenly space today's star - the leggy, bite- crisp, bright-green asparagus.
240g standard plain flour
70ml cold water
Good pinch of salt
Place the flour, butter and salt into a large mixing bowl and use your fingertips to gently rub the ingredients together until they resemble rough breadcrumbs. Do not overmix otherwise the butter will begin to melt from the heat of your fingers.
Add the water and mix until dough is formed.
Wrap in plastic and refrigerate for 30 minutes or overnight.
Before using, gently re-work the pastry, taking care to ensure it still remains cold and firm.
On a lightly floured workbench roll the pastry out into a sheet about 3mm thick, making sure it is large enough to line your baking pan and spill over the sides. Crimp the edges of the crust.
150g streaky bacon, chopped
1 medium onion, sliced
1 medium tomato, diced
500g asparagus spears
100g shredded parmesan cheese
Preheat oven to 175 degrees Celsius.
Heat a pot of water over high heat and bring to a boil. Season with salt and add the asparagus. Cook for 3-4 minutes or until the asparagus easily snaps in two. Remove from heat and drain. Immediately shock in an ice bath and then drain once the asparagus has cooled. Cut the asparagus spears into 21/2cm pieces. Set aside.
Heat a saute pan over medium- high heat. Add the chopped bacon and cook until the fat has rendered out and the bacon is crispy. Remove and set aside, draining the fat from the pan.
Coat the same pan with olive oil. Add the sliced onions and saute until they are golden brown and caramelised - about 10 minutes. To prevent the onions drying out, add a little water.
Remove from heat and set aside.
In a medium bowl, combine the eggs, cream and cheese. Whisk together.
Fill your prepared crust with the asparagus, bacon, tomatoes, and onions. Pour the egg cream mixture over the filling. Bake in the oven for 40 minutes to 1 hour or until the eggs are set. Let it rest for 5 minutes before serving.
Pan-seared rig with asparagus & avocado salad & smoked tomato salsa
Fish and salad:
800g rig fillet
Salt and pepper
1/2 telegraph cucumber, peeled and sliced
1 avocado, peeled and sliced
400g asparagus, blanched and refreshed
Cut rig into 4 portions and season well both sides.
Prepare smoked tomato salsa and dressing.
Heat pan with oil until a slight haze of smoke appears.
Place the rig portions in the pan and seal 3 minutes each side and allow to rest in pan while cooling for 4-5 minutes.
While fish is resting, prepare the salad by combining mesclun, asparagus, cucumber and avocado.
Smoked tomato salsa:
Manuka chips for smoking
8 large tomatoes
1 Tbsp manuka honey
1 Tbsp balsamic vinegar
Salt and pepper
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 tsp coriander seeds
1 spring onion, sliced
1 small red onion, sliced
1 handful coriander, torn
1 clove garlic, chopped
1 Tbsp chilli sauce
2 Tbsp sesame oil
1/2 tsp ginger
250ml olive oil
Set up wood smoker - an old wok is good for this. Put manuka chips in the bottom of the wok. Wrap a cooling rack in aluminium foil, and then poke small holes in foil. Put on top of wood chips.
Place the whole tomatoes on top of the foil and drizzle with the honey and balsamic vinegar and then season with salt and pepper.
Cover with more foil - or a lid if your wok has one. Smoke for 4-6 minutes, until tomatoes are slightly softened. Leave to cool and dice.
Toast the cumin and coriander seeds and grind with mortar and pestle. Combine with smoked tomatoes and remaining ingredients to complete the salsa and serve with rig and asparagus salad.
Roasted chicken with asparagus, fresh pasta & hot lemon dressing
150g pasta flour or high-grade flour
50g fine semolina flour
Salt for seasoning
Small dash of cold water
Place all ingredients in a food processor and pulse to form dough.
Knead lightly on a floured surface until dough is smooth. Cover with plastic and rest in refrigerator for 2 hours.
Take out and roll through a pasta machine until 2mm thick and place through the fettuccine cutter. If you don't have a machine, roll out pieces of dough into think sheets then cut strands to make the pasta. Dust with semolina flour to stop it sticking together. Or, you can buy fresh pasta from the supermarket.
Hot lemon dressing:
1 Tbsp grated lemon zest
1 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
1 Tbsp fresh lemon juice
6 threads of saffron
1 tsp manuka honey
Place lemon juice, zest, pinch of salt and honey into a bowl.
Heat oil in a saucepan and add saffron.
Whisk the hot saffron oil slowly into lemon, juice, honey until thickened. Set aside.
4 cooked roasted chicken thighs, cut up or left whole
400g fresh asparagus, trimmed and left whole
200g fresh pasta fettuccine
50g sun-dried tomatoes, chopped
1 handful fresh basil, chopped
60g crumbled feta
Boil asparagus until tender, 3-5 minutes. Remove asparagus from water with a slotted spoon.
Add pasta to boiling water and cook al dente. Drain pasta and add to a bowl with all remaining ingredients, except feta.
Stir to combine.
Dish up into 4 bowls and top with feta. Salt to taste and serve immediately.
Taranaki Daily News