Posted by: acooksca | 04/04/2009

Asparagus with Manchego and Pancetta

The emergence of fresh asparagus in the market means that February, the most produce vacant month, is over. Spring asparagus-an-manchego-1a1will soon present us with fava beans and strawberries but asparagus appears first. I search it out in March and April when it is pencil thin and sweet. By June asparagus is woody and vegetal, lacking the balance of early spring sweetness.

After a few weeks of steamed asparagus spears barely kissed with butter and salt I am ready for a more complete treatment. Something brimming with the balance of all five taste sensations: salty, sweet, sour, bitter and umami. You know umami….the mouth feel of savoriness common to meats, cheeses and other proteins.

This recipe calls for robust ingredients used with a light touch, as flavor accents. Pancetta and provides the required saltiness. The sweet comes from balsamic vinegar, as does the sour. Green onions and rosemary are the bitter balance in our taste equation. And the umami? The cheese. The sum of these flavors is complex and yet the asparagus retains the feeling of spring time freshness.

Manchego is the quintessential Spanish sheep’s milk cheese. In the U.S. it is mostly sold aged about a year, with a strong taste and no herbs added. The assertive flavors of a long aged Manchego are too much for this dish. Also, we need the taste of rosemary. At four months of age certain Manchegos are rubbed with olive oil and encrusted with dried rosemary. They are then aged another three to four months. These Manchegos are a little softer in texture then the longer aged style.

 If you can’t find rosemary encrusted Manchego, substitute Brin d’Amour, a rosemary and herb encrusted sheep’s milk cheese of about the same texture from Corsica.

¼ pound (four x 1 oz. slices) 8 month aged rosemary encrusted Manchego
One pound pencil thin fresh asparagus ends trimmed
¼ cup finely diced pancetta
4 green onions, whites and green separated and sliced finely
4 Tbl. light live oil
2 Tbl. balsamic vinegar
Salt and Pepper to taste
Handful of baby greens to garnish

Heat your largest sauté pan on high with 1/2 inch water. Poach the asparagus quickly, about 2-3 minutes, turning often. Poach the asparagus in batches so as not to crowd the spears. Check the base of one spear for the proper crisp-tender texture. Remove to four individual serving plates.

Empty any extra water from the pan. Add 2 tablespoons oil, the pancetta and the white part of the green onions. Sauté on high just until the pancetta is cooked through, about 2 minute. Remove from heat. Add the other tablespoons oil, the vinegar, the green part of the onions, salt and pepper. Stir to combine.

Slip a slice of Manchego under the asparagus spears. Spoon the warm pancetta mixture over the asparagus and garnish with a few leaves of colorful baby lettuce.

Serves four as a warm salad or first course.

Originally published in Farmstead Cheese News by Karen Bolla, edited for A Cook’s California (A Cook’s CA)  by Karen Bolla.


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