Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The Best of the Rest

Hey there. I hope you're all well this evening.

As you will remember, I started off this day with the intention to do something with the first asparagus of what I am sure will be a spring to cherish and enjoy. One of my readers and I must have been on the same wavelength, or even literally the same page, of the Culinary Institute of America's gorgeous book, simply entitled, Vegetables. This book is new to the leaning, nearly splintering from book weight, shelf upon which my cookbook collection rests. It is a straightforward reference text, it wastes no words. It is as clear as an asparagus bell ringing: peel, broil, make sauce, top with hard cooked eggs and get on with your life.
I believed it could be as tidy as it looked on the page. It would have been, had I not made the unfortunate error of turning to Scaglio's Market in Katonah, NY to be the guys who provided the Serrano ham called for in the recipe, Asparagus a la Parrilla.

Not only did they not have Serrano ham (Murray's Cheese Shop would not have failed me) but instead they offered me two sorts of prosciutto, a stumper that occurs all over lately. I could choose from domestic, which caused a displeased reaction across the butcher's face because he felt it was "salty." Or, I could have di Parma, which he said was very good. This very good version was $36.00 a pound, which would have been okay were it a $36.00 a pound ham. But, it was more like a less expensive, very gamey, oddly porky sort of an unhappy boar, or maybe a mini-pig, but it was no piece of Italian piggy perfection. I came to know those glorious hams at breakfast throughout Italy. When they are good, they are so good I thought it might be worth risking arrest to get one home with me. That prosciutto they gave me will not be invited to breakfast in my Tuscan-villa fantasy, nor, come to think of it, in my Venice-flat fantasy. I should have expected as much from this market, the last precious cippolines I bought there, once peeled, were rotten. This is not a pride operation, unlike the Organic Connection, whom I have mentioned before. I needed to complete a task in as few steps as possible, but I should have waited the task rather than dealt with a dispassionate operation. Eat and learn.

Moving on. This is a noble asparagus recipe, though it will not seem unexpected. As it sits on the table, it looks not unlike all the good asparagus dishes I have known, predictably topped with the hard cooked egg. And sure, maybe we've seen it before but could be it is done because this is still a stunner of a harbinger of spring. One look at it and, deep breath, we survived another winter.

My notes on this project are as straightforward as the concept: Avoid Scaglio's. Second, pancetta would have been great here, prosciutto was okay. I did not have chicken broth handy (don't ask) so I made a quick stock of the trimmed asparagus stalks which would have been discarded, a shallot, water, and salt. I allowed it to boil and reduce for a bit, and it was great. But here is the rub: Next time, I will blanch the asparagus even though I would have sacrificed the char flavor. It just looks more appetizing, and for the first look and taste of spring it needs to be one foxy glamour girl of a bowl of asparagus. We're celebrating here. But, this is the CIA, who am I to second-guess? Enjoy, and remember me when spring time comes...

Asparagus a la Parilla
adapted from Vegetables, by the Culinary Institute of America
North Salem, 2008

1 lb asparagus, washed, tough stalk bottoms removed, and peeled
6 tbls. Olive oil or as needed
Kosher salt and ground black pepper
1/2 cup finely diced Serrano ham or pancetta
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 cup chicken or vegetable broth
1/4 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley
Juice of 1/2 lemon
2 hard cooked eggs, chopped

Preheat the broiler. On a baking sheet, lay asparagus flat on one layer, drizzle over two tablespoons or so of olive oil, roll the spears around until they are coated, add a bit more oil if needed. Season with salt and pepper. Place on the top rack of the oven and broil for 7 minutes, then roll the stalks to the other side and broil again until a bit of char appears on the tips.
Place on flat service plate, and keep warm as able (but this dish will also be great cold).

Heat 1/4 cup olive oil in a saute pan over medium heat until it shimmers. Add the ham and garlic, saute until the garlic is aromatic, about 1 minute. Add broth and parsley and cook an additional minute or until heated through. Whisk in lemon juice until worked into sauce. Season with salt and pepper.

Pour the ham and olive oil sauce over the asparagus. Garnish with chopped hard cooked eggs.
Barely serves 4.

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