Warming trend heats up appetite for the taste of asparagus

March 03, 2002|By Rob Kasper

Usually I don't get excited about asparagus until late March. Then all the full-color photographs, provocative poses and saucy recipes of the bright green stalks get my juices flowing. It happens every spring, routinely.

But this year it happened several weeks early. It might have been the unseasonably mild, if dry, weather. The past few weeks have felt more like spring than winter. Forsythia is blooming, crocus flowers are pushing through the crusty ground, and more often than not I have found myself wearing a light jacket rather than a heavy coat. In short, it has seemed like asparagus season.

Feeling antsy, I scampered over to my garden plot early this week to check my asparagus plants for any signs of activity. Not much was happening. Mother Nature was telling me, in effect, to keep my shirt on.

Moreover, I quickly recalled I was going to have to wait months, not weeks, to harvest a crop. Asparagus tests your patience. It takes three years to produce a quality crop. This, I recalled, will be the second year the plant has been in the ground.

I am more familiar with immediate-gratification crops, like radishes. You drop a few seeds in the ground, you bend over to tie your shoe, and before you know it, you've got a handful of radishes to enjoy with a cold beer.

Since I couldn't harvest any asparagus from my garden, I went looking for it at grocery stores. There I found it, in bright green bunches, shipped from Mexico.

Next I hunted for a new way to fix asparagus. In the past, I have steamed it, baked it with olive oil and salt, and even grilled it, losing a few spears in the process to the charcoal gods. But I have never baked it with sheep's cheese and almonds. That is a treatment I found in The Best American Recipes 2001-2002, a book by Fran McCullough that garners the year's best recipes from magazines, newspapers and various other sources.

The recommended cheese was Roncal, described as a somewhat salty and slightly sweet cheese from Navarre in Spain. I did not have any in my house. But I was able to find some in a downtown Baltimore cheese shop, Combalou at 818 N. Calvert St.

The procedure was pretty straightforward. I simply trimmed the asparagus, rolled it in olive oil, and then sprinkled the cheese and the toppings of my choice. One of the recommended toppings was almonds, which I had in my pantry and used. Another was serrano ham, which I did not have in my fridge and therefore omitted. Nonetheless, the ham-free version of the dish worked well and this week I got the asparagus-eating season off to a savory, early start.

Baked Asparagus With Roncal Cheese

Serves 2-3

1 1/2 pounds medium thick asparagus

2 1/2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

2 ounces finely chopped serrano ham or prosciutto (optional)

2 ounces shredded Roncal, Mahon, or aged Manchego cheese

2 tablespoons finely ground unblanched almonds

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

Snap off woody ends of asparagus and peel the stalks. Place the spears in a baking dish; add 2 tablespoons of the oil and roll asparagus to coat well. Arrange in one layer and season with salt and pepper. Scatter the ham, cheese and almonds over the asparagus. Drizzle with remaining 1/2 tablespoon of oil, bake for 15 to 20 minutes, until spears are tender and the cheese melts. Serve hot.

From The Best American Recipes 2001-2002 by Fran McCullough (Houghton Mifflin 2001)

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