It's early June, and local asparagus are popping up all over Long Island. I mean this literally: When conditions are optimal, asparagus spears can grow as quickly as 1 centimeter an hour. So just a day after one batch is harvested, another will have risen in its place. Take advantage of this abundance, because it is temporary. By the end of the month, asparagus will disappear from farm markets, replaced by shelling peas and spinach.
Asparagus has been valued for its unique flavor, healthfulness and aphrodisiac qualities since ancient times. Egyptians carved asparagus into pyramid friezes, depicting it as an offering to the Gods. Greek historian and philosopher Plutarch advised couples to eat asparagus immediately after the wedding. Romans cultivated asparagus all over the empire, and a dedicated Asparagus Fleet was dispatched far and wide to fetch it and bring it back to Emperor Augustus throughout the year.
These days, we commoners can go to any supermarket and buy asparagus grown as far as California, Mexico and Peru. But freshly picked Long Island asparagus is vastly superior to imports. It almost tastes like a different vegetable: juicy rather than dry, creamy inside instead of stringy or woody.
Asparagus is best when cooked immediately, but if you want to hold onto it for a day or two, place the spears upright in a glass jar with about an inch of water, loosely cover with a plastic bag, and refrigerate. Blanch the stalks for a few minutes in boiling water, cool them off under cold running water, pat dry, and then serve them with mayonnaise or a vinaigrette. Alternatively, cut the blanched asparagus into short pieces and toss into pasta, salads, omelets, or scrambled eggs.
If you're a baker, try adding your blanched local asparagus to a savory cornmeal and cheddar loaf cake. Arranged on top of the batter, the stalks get a little crispy and form a pretty decoration. Served with a salad, a slice of this bread is almost a meal in itself.
You can use any cheese you like here, as long as it is similar in texture to Cheddar. Gruyere would be great. So would Italian Fontina. Reserving some of the cheese to sprinkle on top of the cake results in a crunchy and delicious crust.
1 1/4 pounds asparagus, tough ends removed
1 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 cup yellow cornmeal
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
2 large eggs
1 1/4 cups whole milk
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly
6 ounces (about 1 1/2 cups) grated Cheddar cheese, divided
1. Bring a medium pot of salted water to boil. Add the asparagus and cook until just tender, 2 to 4 minutes depending on thickness. Drain, running under cold water to cool. Pat dry with paper towels. Set aside.
2. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Spray a 9-by-5-inch loaf pan with nonstick cooking spray. Whisk together the flour, cornmeal, baking powder, salt and black pepper in a large bowl. Whisk together the eggs, milk and butter in a large measuring cup.
3. Stir wet ingredients into dry ingredients. Stir in 1 cup cheese.
4. Scrape half the batter into the prepared pan and smooth with a spatula. Arrange half the asparagus in a single layer over the batter. Top with the remaining batter and smooth with a spatula. Arrange the remaining asparagus on top of the batter and sprinkle with the remaining cup cheese. Bake until the loaf is golden and a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean, 50 to 55 minutes. Cool in the pan for 10 minutes, invert onto a rack, re-invert, and let cool completely before slicing and serving. Makes 1 loaf, about 12 generous slices.