Asparagus is probably the most revered spring vegetable. I recall that when I lived in Los Chavez, between Belen and Los Lunas in New Mexico, the wild asparagus would sprout beneath the cottonwood trees and I could collect as much of it as I wanted. This was before the Internet, so I was constantly combing through cookbooks to find new recipes for this unusual, leafless plant with the odd name. Interestingly, the word asparagus comes from the ancient Persian word asparag, meaning a sprout. Before it was used for food, it was considered a cure for heart trouble, dropsy, and toothache.
The ancient Egyptians cultivated asparagus and offered it to numerous gods and the Romans had an expression, Velocius quam asparagi coquantur, meaning faster than you can cook asparagus. A recipe for it appeared in the first known cookbook, De re coquinaria (“On the Subject of Cooking”) by Apicius.
It was a rare and expensive vegetable in the 1890s in the United States, but then cultivation (and its subsequent escape from cultivation thanks to birds). You can find purple, green, white, and variegated asparagus. White asparagus is grown beneath mounds of soil to block sunlight which causes the stalks to turn green because of photosynthesis.
Asparagus is a well-known diuretic and contains potassium, iron, calcium, and vitamins A, B, and C. It has been used to treat “female problems” and it contains a sulfur compound that causes some people’s urine to smell funny. And some believe it’s a turn-on. Food expert Waverly Root commented: “It was inevitable that the asparagus should be treated as an aphrodisiac given its shape, which, an Elizabethan writer remarked, ‘manifestly provoketh Venus.’”
Southwest Asparagus Strata
Serve this great entree when asparagus is at its height. This recipe has variations all over the place! Basically, the strata is an egg and bread-based dish that is enhanced with vegetables, spices, or herbs. The classic mix is 6 eggs to 3 1/2 cups of milk; you can cut down the mix to 4 eggs, 2 egg whites (or Eggbeaters), and use low fat milk. Use a full bodied bread–nothing wimpy. Buy day-old French bread from a good bakery.
1 pound day old French bread, cut into 1 1/2 cubes
3 1/2 cups low fat milk
6 eggs, or substitute 4 whole eggs and 2 egg whites, or substitute egg Beaters for part of the egg mixture
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 pound fresh asparagus, cleaned and sliced into 2 inch pieces
2 tablespoons butter
1/2 pound button mushrooms, sliced
1/2 cup minced sweet onion
1 cup chopped New Mexican green chile, excess water blotted out
2 teaspoons chopped fresh chives
2 1/2 cups shredded Jarlsberg, Gruyere, or Swiss cheese
2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese
Arrange the bread cubes on a cookie sheet, toast 4 inches under the broiler, stirring, and checking the cubes until they are a golden brown. Take care not to burn the cubes. Place the cubes in a large bowl.
Beat the milk, eggs, white pepper, and salt together and pour 1 1/2 cups of the beaten mixture over the bread cubes. Toss the cubes occasionally to coat them thoroughly. Set aside the remaining milk-egg mixture.
Steam the asparagus for 3 minutes, rinse in cold water, drain, and set aside.
Melt the butter in a skillet and saute the mushrooms and the onion until the onion wilts. Remove the mixture from the pan with a slotted spoon, allowing any liquid to drain off, and place the saute in a small bowl.
Add the green chile and chives to the mushroom mixture and toss.
Lightly grease a shallow 3 or 4 quart oven proof casserole. (Or, a 9 x 13 x 2 pan) Layer 1/3 of the soaked bread cubes in the bottom of the pan. Top this mixture with 1/2 of the asparagus, 1/2 of the mushroom-green chile mixture, and sprinkle with 1/2 of the cheeses. Repeat the next layer with half of the remaining bread cubes, asparagus, mushroom-chile mixture, and the remaining cheese. Top with the remaining bread cubes and pour the reserved milk and egg mixture over the top.
The strata can be baked right away in a 325 degree F oven for 45 minutes; cover the top with aluminum foil if it starts to brown too quickly. Or, the casserole can be covered and refrigerated overnight. To bake the next day, allow the casserole to stand at room temperature for 20 minutes, and then bake in a 325 degree F oven for 60 to 70 minutes.
Yield: 6 to 8 servings
Heat Scale: Mild
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