By Lauren Chattman
On Mother’s Day, my family treated me to lunch at my favorite North Fork restaurant. Because I am often thinking of what I’ll be eating for dinner even as I am on my way to lunch, I insisted that we stop at a farm stand on the Main Road in Southold to pick up some local asparagus before we got to the restaurant. Asparagus starts to lose its sweetness as soon as it’s picked, so it’s no surprise that asparagus grown close to home and prepared as soon as possible after harvest will taste better than asparagus shipped from California or Mexico. My Mother’s Day lunch was going to be great, and with my farm stand asparagus ready to cook, I knew my Mother’s Day dinner would be equally delicious.
Asparagus is a member of the lily family. Who knew? Even more shocking: Under ideal conditions, an asparagus spear can grow 10 inches in 24 hours! This means that at the height of the season farmers cut new spears daily. But the season is short—mid-May through late June if we are lucky—so I buy it whenever I see it, enjoying it while I can.
Asparagus is a nutrient-dense food, high in folate (one serving has 60% of the recommended daily requirement), potassium, and vitamins A and C. It is also extremely low in calories, about 4 per spear, in case you are counting. Look for firm spears with closed, compact tips. Choose asparagus of a uniform diameter, so they’ll cook evenly. If you are not going to cook them immediately, keep spears crisp by placing them in a pitcher or vase with 2 inches of water and refrigerate for up to two days.
Preparing asparagus for cooking is a snap, literally. To break off the woody stem end, hold the spear in the middle with one hand and at the stem with the thumb and index finger of the other hand. Bend it, and the tough end will break off at just the right point.
High-heat roasting is by far my favorite way to cook asparagus as a vegetable side dish. It couldn’t be easier: Snap off the tough ends of each asparagus spear, throw the spears onto a baking sheet, toss with a tablespoon or two of olive oil and some salt, and place in a 425-degree oven until the asparagus are browned and even a little bit crispy at the tips, 25 to 40 minutes depending on their thickness. This method produces deliciously caramelized asparagus with intense flavor and just a little crunch. Serve warm, or set it aside and serve it at room temperature.
I roasted most of my North Fork asparagus when I got home, but I still had a small bunch in the refrigerator on Monday. So I made a savory asparagus and fontina cake. It was delicious with a glass of wine before dinner, and toasted for breakfast the next morning.
Polenta Cake with Roasted Asparagus and Fontina
Makes 1 loaf, about 12 generous slices
You can use any cheese you like here, as long as it is similar in texture to Italian Fontina. Gruyere would be great. So would Emmantaler or a mild young cheddar. Reserving some of the cheese to sprinkle on top of the cake results in a marvelously crunchy and delicious crust.
¾ pounds asparagus, tough ends removed, cut into 1-inch lengths
½ cup plus 1 tablespoon olive oil
1 ¼ teaspoons salt
1 ½ cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 cup yellow corn meal
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
2 large eggs
1 ¼ cups whole milk
6 ounces (about 1 ½ cups) grated Gruyere cheese
1. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Toss the asparagus with 1 tablespoon olive oil and ¼ teaspoon salt. Spread in a single layer on a baking sheet and roast until tender and beginning to brown, 20 to 30 minutes. Set aside to cool completely.
2. Turn oven down to 350 degrees. Spray a 9-inch by 5-inch loaf pan with nonstick cooking spray. Whisk together the flour, corn meal, baking powder, black pepper, and remaining 1 teaspoon salt in a large bowl. Whisk together the eggs, milk, and remaining ½ cup olive in a large measuring cup.
3. Stir wet ingredients into dry ingredients. Stir in 1 cup cheese and the asparagus.
4. Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the top with a spatula. Sprinkle with remaining ½ cup cheese. Bake until the loaf is golden and a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean, 50 to 55 minutes. Cool in the pan for 10 minutes, invert onto a rack, re-invert, and let cool completely before slicing and serving.