Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Asparagus in Ambush (Asparagus-prosciutto twists, lemon béchamel)

Spring is always deserving of celebration. Especially after that cruel trick where winter swept in to freeze the first buds off the trees, it's nice to see everything sprouting up, again. In honor of those sprouts, I wanted to do something with asparagus, one of my favorite spring vegetables. I settled on an adaptation of "asparagus in ambush," an old favorite from the Flying Rhino restaurant in Worcester, Massachusetts. There, asparagus and prosciutto are wrapped in a flour tortilla and drizzled with lobster sherry cream. I made some adjustments, trading crisp twists of puff pastry for the tortilla to make a prettier presentation and swapping out the lobster cream sauce for a lighter, lemony béchamel with a little kick.

Roll for initiative
Asparagus is much-neglected in Medieval cookery, but has been cultivated since at least 3000 BC, appearing in ancient Egyptian murals and ancient Roman cookbooks. The name is classical Latin derived from the Greek aspharagos, itself derived from the Persian asparag, meaning "sprout." This popularity around the Mediterranean perhaps owes its origin to asparagus' tolerance of salty soils, which makes it thrive in maritime habitats. Some asparagus beds are even salted to prevent weeds, though this leaves them good for little other than asparagus. Commercial asparagus, grown primarily in China, Peru, and Mexico, can now be shipped to market year-round but, traditionally, asparagus is planted in the winter, with the first sprouts peeking up from the snow in early spring. 

Just the right thinness
Perhaps because of the vaguely phallic shape, asparagus was once considered an aphrodisiac, named points d'amour or "love tips" in French. The slender stalks do make an elegant presentation that can assist in romance. Since the slimmest and youngest shoots are the most tender and delicately flavored, this makes it the ideal choice for April and May. Thick asparagus may be visually impressive, but it is woodsy, fibrous, and best avoided. To find just the right spot to trim the bottoms, hold either end in each hand and gently bend until it snaps, then line the stalks back up and slice the rest to match. 

To cut through the creaminess
Asparagus is the main event, but puff pastry and béchamel are what help to make the dish stand out and are always good to have in your repertoire. The pastry lends itself to versatile shapes and pairs with any flavor: sweet or savory. Similarly, béchamel is infinitely adaptable. One of the "mother sauces" of French haute cuisine, it's little more than a roux of butter and flour mixed with hot milk, but the addition of other ingredients results in basically every white sauce you can name. I chose sunny lemon zest to key up against the mild bitterness of the asparagus and rich, buttery pastry. With salty-sweet prosciutto and some umami tang from parmigiano reggiano, these elegant appetizers are perfect for any party.

Dressed for success
Asparagus in Ambush
Adapted from The Flying Rhino, Worcester, Massachusetts 
Puff pastry needs to be worked with quickly, too long at room temperature and it goes limp and will bake with a depressive puff and fewer flaky layers. If you're having trouble assembling the other ingredients, wrap it in parchment and pop it back in the freezer for a few minutes. Serves 6-8.

For the asparagus-prosciutto twists:
1 package puff pastry, thawed 
1 bunch freshly asparagus, bottoms trimmed
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil 
Cracked black pepper, to taste 
2 ounces parmigiano reggiano, finely grated
1/4 pound prosciutto, sliced to ribbons

For the lemon béchamel sauce:
3 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons white flour
1 1/2 cups whole milk
1/2 lemon, freshly zested and juiced
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 teaspoon white pepper
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper 

Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil or parchment and preheat the oven to 400 F.

Slice the puff pastry into strips roughly 1 x 4 inches, roughly the size of a few stalks of trimmed asparagus. Drop these on the tray.

Like so
Slice the Toss the asparagus with oil and pepper. Take the asparagus, 2-3 stalks at a time, and wrap in a strip of prosciutto, then wrap in a strip of puff pastry. Continue until all the asparagus is wrapped.

Arrange twists on the prepared baking sheet and sprinkle with parmigiano reggiano. Bake until crispy and golden, 15-20 minutes.

Ready to bake
While the twists are baking, prepare the béchamel. Warm two saucepans over medium-high heat. 

Fill one with the milk and heat to steaming, then bank it back to low to keep it hot.

Melt the butter in the other saucepan, then sprinkle with flour, whisking constantly. The mixture will foam and bubble.

Bubbling away
Continue to cook, always whisking, for another 2-3 minutes, it should just begin to smell a little toasty.

Slowly stream in the hot milk, whisking vigorously to prevent lumps from forming. Add the remaining ingredients and continue to cook until the mixture thickens slightly, coating the back of a spoon.

Serve hot.


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