Monday, May 31, 2010

Italian baked asparagus with Spanish fried eggs

What's my favorite dish? Who's my favorite child? It's an unfair question.

But, if pressed, for both my wife and I, our favorite dinner may be baked asparagus with fried eggs. It is a very popular Italian dish (it may have been the first think I ever ate in Italy, arriving in Milan around lunchtime in April 1982) and can be found in most Italian cookbooks. We make a few changes when we make it, which I think partly simplify and partly improve the dish. Rather than steaming or boiling the asparagus, and then baking it with Parmesan cheese, we just bake it. It is certainly easier, and if anything, better, since the roasting concentrates the flavor of the vegetable, while steaming or boiling can dissipate it. Also, rather than serving it with conventional sunny side up eggs cooked in butter, which you can get better in any diner, we shallow fry them in olive oil, following the method in Penelope Casas' The Foods and Wines of Spain. These eggs can stand on their own and if you have never had them, it is a transformative experience -- crisp rather than slightly rubbery. With the asparagus, especially with locally grown asparagus available in the NY area for a few more weeks, it is a marriage made in heaven.

  • Asparagus -one hefty bunch or two small ones makes a meal for two
  • Butter
  • Parmesan cheese (the good stuff)
  • Eggs (one or two per person)
  • Olive oil
  • Salt and pepper

  1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
  2. Snap off the woody bottoms of the asparagus.
  3. Butter a large baking dish, and put in the asparagus, ideally in one layer but no more than two. Dot with a little butter (about a tablespoon total), season lightly with salt and more generously with freshly ground black pepper, and sprinkle with a good handful of freshly grated Parmesan.
  4. Bake about 15 minutes until the asparagus is as tender as you like (it should not be really crisp). It may take longer if the asparagus is thick or the pan is crowded.
  5. When the asparagus is done heat at least 1/4 inch of olive oil in an 8 or 9 inch skillet, ideally cast iron. Nonstick doesn't work well here. (1/2 inch or more of oil is better but this often freaks people out the first time they do this.
  6. Put the asparagus on 2 serving plates.
  7. Break one egg into a cup and if this is important to you, check for blood spots.
  8. When the oil is shimmering and almost smoking, slip in the egg. Leave it for about 15 seconds, and if the oil is hot enough, the white will start to form bubbles. Baste the top by spooning some hot oil over it (the easier safer way), or my tilting the pan around so oil slips over the top. The white will blister and brown, and the yolk should stay soft. The whole think takes a minute or less.
  9. Remove the egg with a slotted spatula, let the oil drip off, put the egg on the asparagus on one plate, sprinkle the egg with coarse salt, and repeat with another egg.
  10. Serve with good crusty bread, dipping the bread and the asparagus in the egg yolk.
Serves 2.

Cooking fat: Don't use super expensive condiment quality olive oil here. The intense heat will take away much of the aroma. Use your every day olive oil, which you can even cut with a little vegetable oil if expense is a concern. The olive oil should dominate, and more oil is better than less to get the right result with the eggs.

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