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Thursday, April 26, 2012

Asparagus from the Asparagus Capital!

Although the Pioneer Valley where I live in Western Massachusetts is well known for its colleges (Amherst, Hampshire, Mount Holyoke, Smith, and UMass are all in the area), and for its exquisite fall foliage, we also have another distinction. The small town of Hadley is known as the “Asparagus Capital” of the U.S.

Right about now, as we head into May, local farmers start to bring their asparagus crops to our markets. The minute I see the signs “Locally Grown” sitting atop mounds of the native spears, I fill my cart with bunches. There are so many ways to use this spring produce. I serve them as an appetizer with a bowl of aioli for dipping, or I grill or blanche them, then season them with a sprinkle of lemon zest and a hint of fleur de sel. Sometimes they even become part of the main course as in the recipe for Penne with Asparagus, Mushrooms, and Prosciutto featured here.

A quick and easy dish to assemble, this all- in-one entree makes a tempting centerpiece for a spring dinner.  A trio of ingredients–prosciutto, cremini mushrooms, and asparagus–are combined with cooked penne. The prosciutto is cut into julienned strips and sauteed until crispy, and the mushrooms sliced and quickly sauteed as well. Finally, the asparagus are cut into small pieces and cooked with the pasta in a large pot of water, then drained and tossed with the ham and mushrooms. Butter, Parmesan cheese, and chives add finishing flavor notes to the dish.

Add a green salad and a basket of warm crusty bread to complete the menu, some fresh strawberries or blueberries with scoops of your favorite lemon sorbet for dessert, and you’ve got a delectable family or company meal.

Penne with Asparagus, Mushrooms, and Prosciutto

5 ounces thinly sliced prosciutto
10 ounces cremini mushrooms
1 pound slim asparagus
6 tablespoons olive oil plus more if needed, divided
Kosher salt
1 pound penne, farfalle, or rigatoni
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, preferably softened
3/4 cup grated Parmesan, preferably Parmigiano Reggiano, divided
1/4 cup chopped chives

1.Stack several prosciutto slices on top of each other, and cut them into julienne strips about 1/4 inch wide and 2 to 3 inches long.  Continue until all the prosciutto has been cut into strips. Set aside. 

2. Slice the mushrooms thinly through the stems and set aside.  Cut off and discard the tough base ends from the asparagus. Then cut spears on the diagonal into 1-inch pieces. Set aside.
3. Heat 2 tablespoons of the oil in a large, heavy skillet set over medium high heat. When hot, add the julienned prosciutto. Stir and cook until the strips are crisp, 3 to 4 minutes or longer.  Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels.

4. Add the remaining 4 tablespoons oil to the same skillet and place over medium high heat. When  hot, add the mushrooms and stir and cook until golden brown, 4 to 5 minutes. If needed, add more oil to the skillet. Remove and set mushrooms aside.  (Both the mushrooms and the prosciutto can be sauteed 3 hours ahead; leave, uncovered, at cool room temperature.)

5. Bring a large pot of water to boil and add 1 tablespoon salt and the pasta.  Cook 9 minutes, then add the sliced asparagus.  Continue to cook about 3 minutes more, until the pasta is al dente (just tender to the bite) and the asparagus are tender.  Drain the pasta and the asparagus in a colander, then return them to the pot in which they were cooked.  Stir in the butter and 1/2 cup of Parmesan cheese. Then stir in half the  prosciutto and all the mushrooms. Taste and season with salt as needed.

6. To serve mound the pasta in a large serving bowl or on a platter. Sprinkle with the remaining prosciutto, remaining cheese, and the chives. Serves 4.

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