Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Milanese-style asparagus (asparagi alla milanese)

The asparagus have arrived!! I know it's only February, and it's still gray and rainy (at least on some days), but to my mind Spring begins the same day those wonderful cylindrical bunches of asparagus stalks start appearing at the markets, and this past Sunday there they were!

Of course, the stand with asparagus was all the way down at the end of the market, so by the time I saw it, I had already loaded up my shopping bag with various wintery vegetables - spinach, arugula, etc. But as soon as I saw the asparagus, I knew I had to have some and I simply could not wait another week.

Then of course, I had to figure out how to prepare them. Though my first ideas were to make an asparagus risotto or perhaps a frittata, I felt that since these are the first asparagus of the year, I really shouldn't chop them up and serve them all mixed up with other things; I needed a dish where the asparagus played the starring role - something simple enough to let the flavor and texture of the asparagus shine through and yet also satisfying enough to make up a meal. A quick internet search brought me to this dish - asparagi alla milanese - which fit all my requirements, made quite a dramatic display on the plate, and tasted absolutely wonderful in this cold, wet, not-quite-Spring weather.

1 bunch of asparagus (about 20 stalks - serves 4 people as a side and 2 as a main dish)
Eggs, roughly 1 every 7 stalks - I only used one for 10 stalks, but that was because eggs don't come in halves
30-50 g of butter
Lots and lots of good parmesan

In general, when you see "alla milanese" in the name of a dish, it means the dish involves high quantities of butter, lots of frying, or both! Recipes for this dish varied in their recommendations on how much butter to use, but most called for significantly more butter than I used - about 100 g or so. You can use more or less, depending on how rich you want this to be.

Fill a large pot with water up to about 3/4 the height of your asparagus stalks (hopefully, your asparagus are all roughly the same height and width - otherwise they will cook at different speeds which will result in some being either undercooked or overcooked). Bring the water to a boil. While the water is heating, wash the asparagus and chop off the bottoms, so that the most fibrous parts are removed.

When the water starts to boil, add salt and then the asparagus, leaving the tips above the level of the water, so they won't cook too fast.

The asparagus should cook until tender, about 20 minutes. Keep an eye on them as they're cooking to make sure the tips stay above the water, and check them every so often for doneness - you definitely don't want to overcook them!

Once the asparagus are done, remove them from the water and lay them in bunches on your serving plates. Grate the parmesan over the asparagus stalks, making sure to cover them in great heaps of it!

Place the butter in a frying pan and heat the pan. When the pan is hot, crack the eggs directly into it, so that the yolk stays intact as it fries (in Italian this is called making an egg all'occhio di bue - like an ox-eye). Make sure to fry only as many eggs at a time as will fit in your pan - if necessary, fry the eggs in batches.

When the egg white has set and the yolk is still soft, use a spatula to slide the egg from the pan onto the asparagus so that it covers the roots, like a little blanket. Do this for all your bunches of asparagus, and then drizzle them with any butter left in the frying pan.

Serve immediately with some bread to mop up the plate.

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