Asparagi alla milanese, or Milanese asparagus, might just be the best known asparagus dish in the Italian repertoire. True to its Northern roots, it features butter and cheese, whose sweetness is the perfect offset to the somewhat astringent, slightly grassy taste of asparagus. A ‘sunny side up’ fried egg completes the dish. When eating, I like to break the egg yolk and allow it to run over the asparagus, making sure that each bit of asparagus I bite into has ample butter and cheese and egg yolk… Dietetic it’s not, but it’s awfully good!
Although actually rather simple to make, if you ask me, this dish is too impressive to be relegated to side dish status. But, otherwise, it is very versatile: It makes for an elegant Springtime antipasto, and it works as an unusual primo, when you don’t feel like a starch. It can even do service as a quasi-vegetarian secondo. And it makes a fine light supper all by itself, with some crusty bread and a piece of fruit for dessert. In fact, that’s what we had for dinner last night…
For 4 people
- A large bunch of asparagus
- 100g (one stick) butter*
- 100g (4 oz.) freshly grated parmesan cheese*
- 4 eggs
- Salt and pepper
Cook your trimmed asparagus in well-salted water, using one of the standard methods (see below) until just tender—removing them from the heat slightly less tender than you like to eat them, as they will continue to cook as you proceed with the next steps. Let the asparagus stalks drain in a colander. (NB: Do not refresh with cold water; you want the asparagus to stay warm.)
While the asparagus are draining, take a skillet big enough to hold all your eggs and melt the butter in it. Fry the eggs gently in the butter. Regulate the heat to make sure the butter does not darken or (God forbid!) burn. (Although unorthodox, I like to add just a bit of olive oil to the butter to help prevent this.) As they eggs cook, spoon the hot butter over the whites of the eggs to help cook them on top. Season to taste. The eggs are done when the whites are just set and the yolk still liquid.
While the eggs are cooking (they will only take a minute or two) arrange the asparagus on a heated serving platter. The traditional pattern is to arrange the asparagus stalks in a ‘star’, with the tips all pointed towards the center of the platter, which should, of course, be round and large enough to accommodate this arrangement. Personally, I find this a bit fussy (and the asparagus tends to lose heat this way) so I simply line them up more or less neatly on an oval platter.
Then sprinkle the grated cheese, which you should grate at the last moment to retain its full flavor, all over the asparagus. It should look like a heavy dusting of snow that covers the asparagus more or less entirely. Then place your eggs on top of the asparagus and spoon the melted butter remaining in the skillet all over. The eggs and hot butter should melt the cheese entirely.
Serve immediately, as this dish is at its best when it is still nice and warm.
Asparagus comes in several varieties. Leaving aside white asparagus, which is wonderful but perhaps not ideal for this particular dish, the basic choice is between young, thin asparagus and the older, thicker kind. Either kind needs to be trimmed of the rather woody base: just line them up on your cutting board and cut off the bottoms, about where they begin to lose their green color. Thin asparagus (which I personally prefer) needs no more preparation. Older asparagus develops a tough skin, which should be peeled off. If in doubt, bite a bit of one of the stalks to see whether the skin is noticeably tough; if so, peel.
The only slightly tricky part about cooking asparagus is that being essentially shoots, they have very think, tender tips (with very delicate buds on them), which need hardly any cooking at all, and rather thicker bases, which need a bit more time to cook until tender. The older the asparagus, the greater the difference between tip and base.
To get around this problem, you can buy an asparagus cooker, which is a tall, narrow lidded pot with a basket insert, which holds the asparagus stalks together upright and allows you to remove them easily. Water is put into the bottom of the cooker, just enough so that the thicker stalks are immersed in boiling water while the delicate tips simply steam. If you are using older asparagus, an asparagus cooker is practically a necessity. (One of the few cases, in my opinion, where a single-purpose pot is.)
Younger, thinner asparagus can be made two other ways: the modern method is to lay your asparagus out flat in single layer in a a skillet filled with boiling water, which has the advantage of being quite fast. (The inch or two of water will come quickly up to the boil, especially if you’ve covered your skillet, and will return to the boil quickly as well.) Or, using a more traditional method, you can tie your asparagus together with kitchen twine and boil the bunch in a lots of well-salted water in a large pot. This takes a bit longer but tying the asparagus together makes things a bit easier when it’s time to remove the asparagus from the heat.
It hardly needs saying, but, of course, like so many simple but exquisite Italian dishes, success will depend largely on the quality of your main ingredients. The asparagus must be impeccably fresh—the stalks firm, with their buds intact and tightly gripping the tips. The cheese must be real parmigiano-reggiano, preferably freshly grated while your asparagus is cooking. And if you can find butter from a local dairy farm, well, you’ll be experiencing the dish at its very best!
* Most recipes for Milanese asparagus will call for a lot less butter and cheese than I do here. I like to ‘overdo’ these rich ingredients, but leaving behind any butter I feel I don’t need in the skillet, and sprinkling only as much cheese as I feel like using. (Excess butter needs to be thrown out, but the excess cheese can be used another day.) Better to have more than you need on hand than too little, I say! But, of course, you can hold back on both ingredients if you like.