Asparagus and Soccer Team, by Madeline Sorel (Rome, 1980).
Recipe: Asparagus with Fontina Lemon Cream
The crocuses are up, half frozen from yesterday’s brief snow flurry, and that means only one thing: It’s time to start thinking about asparagus. Not the New York local stuff, which doesn’t appear until late April or early May, but the decent, flavorful California import. I have to admit, I’m not crazy about the California version’s uniform look. I love the bunches I will find at Union Square, where you’ll get some fat stalks, some thinner ones, some straight, some crooked, a few really gnarly looking brown-tinged stalks mixed in with bright green beauties. Though not anywhere near as unruly, they sort of remind me of the asparagus patch we let go to seed in the backyard of a Riverhead, Long Island, rental house my husband and a few friends shared many years ago. The patch went crazy mainly because everyone was always too high on various 1980s-style mind-altering substances—cheap red wine, cocaine, Quaaludes (or was that the ’70s?)—to figure out how to manage it. But two or three times during the spring and early summer, I’d stumble out there, grab a good mix of pencil-skinny and almost zucchini-fat stalks, some literally going to seed, and cook up a puréed soup. That was really delicious, and at least the stuff never went to waste.
I love asparagus. The taste can be so pungent, and it’s certainly unique, and you get that special personal aftereffect as a bonus. Last spring I was into extreme Southern Mediterranean treatments for asparagus—olives, orange, garlic, olive oil, vinaigrette—but this year I’m starting off with a richer, more northern approach. I just picked up a chunk of particularly fragrant Fontina Valle d’Aosta. Sometimes this lovely cheese can have the aroma of spring wildflowers. I don’t always see it in such great shape—too often it’s overripe—so when I do, I grab it. I thought I’d just make a creamy sauce with the special cheese, pour it over boiled asparagus, and then run it under a broiler for a minute. And that’s what I did.
I didn’t use a beciamella as a base but instead went with a little reduced cream that I melted the Fontina into, whisking away. I added a few scrapings of nutmeg and lemon zest and scattered sweet Piave cheese over the top before browning. Good ingredients, simple preparation. To my palate, this dish is great with a pan-sautéed mild whitefish seasoned with a little butter and lemon. I chose a boned shad, which is in season now.
Asparagus with Fontina Lemon Cream
(Serves 3 as a side dish)
1 large bunch asparagus, trimmed and the tough skin peeled
1 cup heavy cream
1 garlic clove, peeled and smashed with the side of a knife
¼ pound Fontina Valle d’Aosta cheese
A few large scrapings of nutmeg
The grated zest from 1 lemon
Freshly ground black pepper
¼ cup grated Piave cheese (the aged grating version is the only one I’ve found in this country so far, and that’s what you want here)
Set up a big pot of water, and bring it to a boil. Add the asparagus, and blanch for about 4 or 5 minutes, until just tender, with a touch of firmness left to it. Take it from the water and plunge it into a cold water bath to stop the cooking. Dry it on paper towels.
In a small saucepan add the cream and garlic, and turn the heat to medium. Cook, uncovered, until reduced by about half. Now turn the heat to low, add the Fontina, and whisk it until it’s melted and the sauce is smooth. Add the nutmeg, lemon zest, a pinch of salt, and some black pepper. Turn off the heat. You can make the sauce a little ahead (maybe about an hour) and reheat it, but the texture is best when it’s made right before serving, and it only takes about 10 minutes.
Place the asparagus in a small baking dish, and season it with salt and black pepper. Pour the hot sauce on top (removing the garlic), and then scatter on the Piave.
Run the dish under the broiler, about 6 inches from the heat source, just until the top is golden. This will also reheat the asparagus. Serve right away.