In Good Season: Giving Asparagus a Touch of Italy



Once I thought there was nothing better than fresh asparagus in the early spring with a small pitcher of Hollandaise sauce on the side.

 

That was until Gourmet magazine produced a recipe that put Asparagus Hollandaise down at least a notch on my list of top 10 favorites. These days, when I search for crisp, straight spears with full but compressed tips, what I have in mind is a sauce made from Fontina cheese.

Fonduta is a specialty of Italy’s Piedmont region. In its natural habitat, the sauce is often served with shavings of white truffles during the fall season — but we’ll ignore that bit. It’s more than acceptable in its plain state in any season. If asparagus is not available, it can be drizzled over risotto or the vegetable of your choice.

This recipe mentions thinly sliced prosciutto, an Italian ham that may be a little difficult to find, but feel free to substitute a thin slice of baked ham, or something from the local deli.

If you think Eggs Benedict is a celebration, wait until you try this:

 

Asparagus & Prosciutto Crostini with Fonduta

For the sauce:

  • 1 Tbsp. unsalted butter
  • ¼ lb. Fontina cheese, rind discarded
  • ½ cup milk
  • 2 large egg yolks
  • 4½-inch thick slices from a round of crusty loaf of bread
  • 1 large garlic clove, halved
  • 2 Tbsps. olive oil
  • ¼ lb. thinly sliced prosciutto or ham
  • 1 lb. thin asparagus, trimmed

To make the sauce:

In a double boiler, or a metal bowl set over a pan of simmering water, melt the butter. Add the Fontina cheese, cut into ¼-inch dice — about ¾ cup — with the milk, and beat, stirring with a whisk, until the cheese begins to melt. Whisk in the yolks and cook, stirring constantly, until smooth and slightly thickened, about 7 minutes.

Remove the pan from the heat, remove the bowl from the pan. Stir the sauce about a minute while the water in the pan cools slightly. Return the bowl to the pan and keep the sauce warm over the hot water (off heat) whisking occasionally to eliminate any skin that might form on the surface.

On a baking sheet, toast the bread in the oven or under a broiler, turning until golden. Rub the tops of the bread with a cut side of garlic, then brush with oil. Season the crostini lightly with salt. Divide the slices among 4 plates and top with prosciutto or ham slices.

In a deep 10- or 12-inch skillet, bring 1 ¼ inches of salted water to a boil and cook the asparagus until crisp-tender, about 2 to 4 minutes. Transfer the asparagus with tongs to a colander and drain. Divide the asparagus among the four plates on top of the ham slices and pour the Fonduta over all.

This will serve 4 as a luncheon or supper entrée.

 

Don’t let the title of this recipe fool you. It may say “ragout” — a vague, pretentious term — but it’s really a delicious vegetable stew that you’ll want to serve again and again.

 

Asparagus, Leek, Shiitake & Potato Ragout

  • 2 large leeks, white parts only
  • 1 lb. small red potatoes
  • 3 Tbsps. olive oil
  • 1 lb. asparagus, trimmed
  • ½ lb. fresh shiitake mushrooms
  • 1½ cups chicken broth
  • ½ lemon
  • ¼ cup chopped fresh mint leaves, optional
  • 3 Tbsps. finely chopped fresh parsley

Trim the asparagus and cut diagonally in 1-inch pieces

Clean the mushrooms, discarding stems; quarter the caps.

Cut leeks crosswise in ½-inch slices; soak in water to remove sand, then drain.

Quarter the potatoes. In a 12- or 14-inch nonstick skillet, heat 1 tablespoon of oil until hot but not soaking and sauté the potatoes. Add salt to taste. Stir until golden, about 5 minutes, then transfer potatoes to a bowl.

Heat the skillet again, adding 1 Tbsp. of oil; sauté the leeks, stirring and shaking the skillet until lightly browned, 3 to 4 minutes. Transfer to the bowl with the potatoes.

Heat remaining oil, and sauté the asparagus, stirring, about 2 minutes. Add the mushrooms and continue cooking until the mushrooms are softened, about 5 minutes.

Add broth and bring to a boil. Add the potatoes and leeks, simmering (covered) until the vegetables are tender, about 5 minutes.

Squeeze a little lemon juice over the vegetables; stir in the herbs along with salt and pepper to taste.

This will serve 4 as a main dish, or 6 as a side dish.

 

For more arts & entertainment news, pick up a copy of The Ellsworth American.

 

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