Asparagus tips Already-elegant side dish makes an exquisite entree

April 07, 1993|By Joe Crea | Joe Crea,Orange County Register

A beautiful bunch of asparagus requires no gilding, but if you're like so many fans of asparagus, you recognize that al dente is only the beginning.

In this era of leaner eating, some circles consider dousing a vegetable with a rich cheese sauce tantamount to sinfulness. That's doubly true when it requires preparation of an initial "base" sauce to create the final sauce. So be it. This classic is a lavish, luscious way to enjoy a plateful of the vegetable, and I'll gladly forgo meat to savor the mellow marriage of cream sauce, enticing cheese and the distinctively herbaceous vegetable.

Enjoy this recipe when your feast can center on a great cache of asparagus. Capitalize on nature's largess by making it the evening's entree. To do so, fudge on the French original and serve the tips over piping hot egg noodles along with a boat of extra Mornay sauce on the side.

' Asparagus au gratin Thoroughly drain the cooked asparagus and arrange it in tiers in heat-proof dish. (You may first butter the dish.) Pour Mornay Sauce over tips only. Cover rest of the asparagus with parchment cooking paper. Sprinkle sauce with grated Parmesan cheese and melted butter; then carefully brown the tips. (Do this in a 425- to 450-degree oven.) Remove paper before serving.

Mornay sauce

1 cup bechamel (recipe follows)

1 scant half-cup heavy cream

1/2 cup (about 1 1/2 ounces) grated Gruyere or Parmesan cheese

1/4 cup butter

Mix a scant one cup of bechamel with a scant half-cup of heavy cream and pour into a heavy saucepan. Over medium-high heat, reduce the mixture by one-third. Remove from heat and stir in 1/2 cup (about 1 1/2 ounces) grated Gruyere or Parmesan cheese. Mix until cheese melts, then whisk in 1/4 cup butter. Strain mixture.

Source: Adapted from "The New Larousse Gastronomique" by Prosper Montagne, (Crown, 1960).

Bechamel (white sauce)

2 tablespoons butter

1 1/2 to 2 tablespoons flour

1 cup milk

BTC 1 small onion

2 whole cloves

1/2 of a bay leaf

salt, white pepper, nutmeg to taste

Heat the oven to 350 degrees.

Melt butter in heavy saucepan (with oven-proof handles) over low heat. Add flour; blend over low heat 3 to 5 minutes. Slowly stir in milk. Add onion (studded with cloves) and bay leaf; cook, stirring sauce frequently with wire whisk, until mixture is thick and smooth.

L Transfer saucepan to oven for 20 minutes. Stir occasionally.

To serve: Strain the sauce and season to taste with your choice of salt, white pepper and/or nutmeg.

Source: "Joy of Cooking" (Irma Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker; Bobbs-Merrill, 1981).

* For a light supper with little effort, I tossed together this version penne and asparagus marinara. It's a quick version of a dish shared by Italian cookbook author Giuliano Bugialli.

Penne and asparagus marinara

Serves four.

2 to 3 tablespoons olive oil

2 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed

1 large onion, peeled and thinly sliced

1 can (about 30 ounces) plum tomatoes in juice

1 can (6 ounces) tomato paste

Water or red port

1 to 1 1/2 teaspoons dried basil (or 1 to 1 1/2 tablespoons minced, fresh basil)

1 bay leaf

1 pound fresh asparagus, trimmed, cut into thirds and cooked al dente

12 ounces dried penne pasta cooked al dente. (If you wish, substitute rigatoni, mostaccioli or other tube-shaped macaroni.)

Heat the oil in a heavy 3- to 4-quart (non-aluminum) saucepan over medium heat. When oil is sizzling, add the garlic and onion; stir to coat vegetables and cook, stirring occasionally, until vegetables are limp and just beginning to brown.

When onion-garlic is tender, stir in the tomatoes, tomato paste and 30 ounces of water (you may substitute up to 1 cup of red port for an equal part of the water). When mixture comes to a full boil, add the basil and the bay leaf; reduce heat to a simmer and cook, stirring occasionally, about 20 minutes or until mixture is thick.

While the sauce is simmering, prepare and cook the asparagus until al dente, and in a separate pan, cook the penne.

Add asparagus to sauce; simmer until vegetable is heated through. Drain penne and toss with some sauce to coat.

Mound the pasta in small bowls or plates and top with a spoonful of sauce which includes several pieces of asparagus per serving. Pass freshly grated Romano cheese.

* Omelets are a pleasure most of us reserve for the weekend. The addition of fresh asparagus when it is in peak season makes "folded eggs" a true feast.

The asparagus omelet

Serves six.

3 cups diagonally sliced fresh asparagus

1/2 cup thinly sliced onion

1 tablespoon olive oil

2 tablespoons fresh basil (or two teaspoons dried)

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/8 teaspoon ground black pepper

12 eggs

6 tablespoons water or milk, divided use

non-stick cooking spray

In a medium skillet, saute the asparagus and onion with the oi until vegetables are crisp-tender. Add basil, salt and pepper; heat thoroughly and set aside.

For each omelet, beat 2 eggs and 1 tablespoon water (or milk) until fluffy. Spray 8-inch omelet pan with non-stick cooking spray, then heat over medium-high heat.

Add egg mixture to hot omelet pan; as eggs set, run spatula around edge of skillet, lifting eggs and letting uncooked portion flow underneath. When cooked but still slightly moist, remove from heat; place 1/2 cup of asparagus mixture on one side of omelet surface. Slide omelet onto plates from the side, folding untopped side over the filling.

Repeat procedure with remaining eggs and filling.

Source: Asparagus USA

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