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Eric Akis: Asparagus stars in tasty French-style dish

Blanched, seared asparagus is served on a creamy sauce topped with proscuitto, shaved Parmesan cheese and slices of fresno pepper and fresh basil.
Asparagus is served on a creamy sauce, with prosciutto, Parmesan and other tasty things. ERIC AKIS

Asparagus is in season and, during a recent trip to France, I noticed many restaurants offering it as an appetizer or small plate that can be served tapas style with other dishes. The goal in either case was to dress up and flavour asparagus in a way that would let it stand out and star in the dish.

I found that to be a very tasty thing to do and when home I was inspired to serve asparagus that way. But, I decided to make the portion size a little larger so my creation could be enjoyed as a light lunch or dinner you could serve with sliced baguette and a simple green salad.

I began the process by blanching asparagus spears in boiling water until bright green and just tender. The asparagus was then cooled in ice-cold water, drained and then dried to be seared later on.

I also prepared the items I would top the asparagus with once plated. They included crispy pieces of prosciutto, shaved Parmesan cheese and sliced fresno pepper and fresh basil.

The last step was to make a creamy sauce for the asparagus by heating cream cheese and milk together with seasonings until hot and well blended.

To finish the dish, I spread sauce on each of two dinner plates, set on the asparagus, and topped it with the items noted above, creating something quite delicious to eat.

When buying asparagus, choose top grade, smooth, firm and fairly straight, thicker spears, that are even in colour, top to bottom, and have tightly closed tips.

Note: In my next two Sunday columns I’m going to share some of the highlights of my recent trip to France. On May 21, I’ll talk about my stay in Provence. On May 28, I’ll share some tasty stories about my visit to Paris.

Asparagus on a Creamy Sauce with Parmesan and Prosciutto

Blanched, seared asparagus, set on a creamy sauce, and topped with crispy bits of proscuitto, shaved Parmesan cheese and slices of fresno pepper and fresh basil.

Preparation time: 30 minutes

Cooking time: about 20 minutes

Makes: two servings

3 thin, about eight-inch long, slices of proscuitto

12 asparagus spears, washed well, with the tough lower part of each spear snapped or trimmed off (see Note 1 and Eric’s options)

1/4 cup firm cream cheese

1/4 cup milk

1 small garlic clove, minced, or 1/8 tsp garlic powder

1/8 tsp smoked paprika or regular paprika

• salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

1 Tbsp olive oil

1/4 cup shaved Parmesan cheese, or to taste (see Note 3)

1 small fresno pepper, thinly sliced widthwise (see Note 3)

2 Tbsp thinly sliced fresh basil or Italian parsley

Preheat oven to 400 F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Cut each slice of prosciutto, widthwise, into one-inch wide pieces. Set the pieces of prosciutto, twirled up slightly and not touching, on the baking sheet. Bake proscuitto 10 minutes. Remove from the oven and cool to room temperature; the prosciutto will crisp up as it cools.

Bring a large, wide skillet of water to a boil over medium-high heat. Add the asparagus and cook two to three minutes, until bright green and just tender. Drain asparagus, cool with ice-cold water, and then drain again. Set asparagus on a plate, pat dry with paper towel or a kitchen towel, and then set it aside for now.

Place the cream cheese, milk, garlic, paprika and a pinch or two of salt in a small pot. Set over medium heat and cook and stir until the cream cheese has melted and smoothly blended with the milk. Cover this creamy sauce and turn heat to low.

Set a large skillet over medium-high heat and add the olive oil. When oil is hot, add the asparagus and season with salt and pepper. Cook and sear asparagus until just hot again, about two minutes, and then remove from the heat.

To serve, spread some the sauce on each of two dinner plates. Set six pieces of asparagus on top of the sauce on each plate. Artfully top the asparagus with some of the crispy proscuitto, shaved Parmesan, fresno pepper and basil (or parsley), and then serve.

Note 1: Choose thicker asparagus for this recipe, with spears at least a 1/2-inch in diameter.

Note 2: You can use a vegetable peeler to shave small pieces off a chunk of Parmesan cheese for use in this recipe.

Note 3: Fresno peppers are a red chili pepper with mild to medium heat similar in shape to a jalapeño pepper. You’ll find them at many supermarkets. If can’t find one, replace it with 2 to 3 Tbsp diced red bell pepper.

Eric’s options: For asparagus that’s a little more tender to the bite, use a vegetable peeler to peel off some of the outer skin on the lower part of each asparagus spear before cooking them.

Eric Akis is the author of eight cookbooks. His columns appear in the Life section Wednesday and Sunday.

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