Although it may be available year-round in some places, Spring is the official season for asparagus. So now is the time to spend less money on fresh, better quality, possibly even locally-grown, bunches of this delicately thin, slightly bitter vegetable. Our go-to method for cooking asparagus usually involves tossing it with a little olive oil and salt & pepper, then grilling it for a few minutes until it is barely tender. As with most cooked veggies, we prefer asparagus al dente or “crisp tender” — cooked through but retaining a bit of crunch. For the times we don’t feel like grilling (or more likely, the (many) occasions when our propane tank is empty and we’ve forgotten (again) to replace it), this recipe is a good alternative for cooking the asparagus in the oven and achieving that crisp tender texture we prefer. Adding melted Parmesan cheese and a drizzle of good balsamic vinegar elevates the flavors even more, for an elegantly savory Spring-time side dish.
We prefer our asparagus on the thinner side, since the thicker stalks can sometimes be a bit more bitter with a woody texture. No matter the size, you’ll want to chop off and discard the bottom half-inch or so of the asparagus because it can be tough and woody as well. If you don’t plan to use the asparagus on the same day you buy it, a good storage tip is to place the bunch of asparagus flat-bottom-side-down in a container with a couple inches of water in it, then place the container in the fridge. The asparagus should stay fresh for several days.
To further enhance the texture of the finished asparagus, you can lightly peel some of the tougher skin off the base of the stalks. Not completely shaved like a cucumber or carrot — think more along the lines of gently groomed 5 o’clock (asparagus) shadow.
Grate the Parmesan cheese using the larger holes of the grater. Bigger pieces of cheese will melt and brown better than finely grated Parmesan.
Place the asparagus on a foil-lined cookie sheet, drizzle with olive oil, season with salt & pepper, then toss until the asparagus is well coated with the oil and salt & pepper. Arrange the asparagus into a single layer on the sheet, then sprinkle a generous amount of cheese over the top. Although the original recipe didn’t call for it, we drizzled a little balsamic vinegar over the top as well. We used our “good” balsamic, which is a bit thicker than the basic variety.
Bake the asparagus in the oven preheated to 400 degrees, turning the asparagus over halfway through the cooking time, until the cheese melts and begins to brown (and the balsamic begins to caramelize) — about 8-10 minutes.
We served the asparagus with lamb chops and polenta for a meal that could only have welcomed Spring better if we’d actually served it for Easter dinner (instead of the day after.) The rich/tart flavor of the balsamic combined with the salty Parmesan in just the right way to brighten the flavor of the asparagus, which had the perfect al dente texture to complement the creamy polenta and tender lamb.