April 24, 2012

Penne with Roasted Asparagus and Balsamic Reduction

I guess you can't really call yourself a food blogger if you don't gush, at least once, about how excited you are about the farmers' market in spring and the delights of that versatile early spring vegetable whose subtle flavor just isn't quite so good at any other time of year. Of course, I'm talking about asparagus. To be sure, it is basically available year round, but it is best now, recently picked, from a farm within a state or two of here. Is that just some local food brouhaha? Not with asparagus (disclaimer: I haven't actually done a side-by-side taste test, but I'm pretty sure this is true). When you are at the farmers' market this weekend and you are appalled to find that enough asparagus for a meal for four costs six dollars, take a deep breath, hand over the money, and cover the cost by having one fewer drinks at happy hour or by packing a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for lunch instead of heading out to chop't (or cosi or whatever other establishment was going to make you 10 dollar lunch tomorrow). It is worth it!

There are a lot of delicious ways to prepare asparagus and I like them all. Except for the ones that involve excessive boiling. Over boiled asparagus is disgusting. It smells foul. It looks sad and limp, and you will definitely have wasted your six dollars. Also, I don't like it in any kind of creamy sauce. Cream drags it down! I came across this recipe while looking for a quick weeknight meal. It lets the asparagus shine by pairing it with a pair of other contrasting flavors: the sweet balsamic and the salty parmesan.

And the recipe was true to its promise of quick. Everything can be done within the time it takes to get a pot of water boiling and cook the penne. Speaking of which, I suppose you could use a different shape of pasta, but I really like the parallelism between the penne and the asparagus. I almost bought rigatoni instead, but I thought better of it when it occurred to me that the short slices of asparagus might get lost inside the rigatoni and would miss out on a proper coating of balsamic.

The parmesan is a fairly critical ingredient. You've already made the investment in the asparagus, so don't cheap out on some crappy parmesan! Either a parmegiano reggiano or a pecorino romano (preferably one you grate yourself) will do. You might have to skip two drinks or pack lunch twice to cover this. But it is so worth it! And one large block will last you a while (it keeps for a very long time). Speaking of parmesan, I went for the first time to the Brazilian steak house, Fogo de Chao (which is incredible, if you are up for an onslaught of meat--this restaurant is a bit how I imagined meals unfolding in the capital city of Panem), and at the salad bar they had an entire wheel of parmesan (look for it in this slide show of salad bar images). If you like parmesan and have never had the experience of digging a fork into a whole parmesan wheel and scraping out as much cheese as you'd like, then I highly recommend making yourself a reservation right now.

Back to my light weeknight dinner. I served the penne with a small caprese salad, with small spheres of mozarella quartered, a chopped tomato, and chopped basil. I tossed them in the bowl I used to prepare the asparagus, which had plenty of oil left coating the sides that no more was required. I did add more salt and pepper. A plain green salad would have been good as well.

- Franklin

Penne with Roasted Asparagus and Balsamic Reduction
Adapted from Food and Wine
Total Time: 30 minutes.
Sweetness Factor: 4; Indulgence Factor: 4; Difficulty Factor: 2; Chance I'll Make it Again: 10.

1 pound penne
2 bunches of asparagus
1/2 cup plus two tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon brown sugar
ample salt, pepper, and olive oil
ample freshly grated parmesan cheese

Put up water to boil for the pasta. Preheat the oven to 350. Prepare the asparagus by careful rinsing it and snapping off the tough part of the ends (usually about 1-2 inches). Chop it into 1-2 inch sections. Toss in a bowl with salt and pepper and a table spoon or two of olive oil (enough to for a thin coat). Spread the asparagus out on a baking sheet and bake for about 15 minutes, until the asparagus is cooked through and has started to whither a bit.

Once the water boils and the pasta is cooking, start the balsamic. Put it in a small saucepan on medium heat and let it simmer for 5-10 minutes (depending on how hot your stove is, mine is electric, so everything takes longer). Once it has reduced in volume by about two thirds add the sugar, whisk to combine, and cook it down a bit more. Add a dash of salt and few grindings of pepper.

Drain the penne. Combine it in a large bowl with the asparagus and balsamic. Toss to thoroughly combine. I prefer to bring the cheese and a grater to the table and let everyone serve themselves, but you could also grate the cheese directly into the serving bowl and stir it in. Note: If you have leftovers, this is pretty cold on day two.

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