Whenever I find a dish that rings my bell, I make it over and over. Like Monet obsessively painting his haystacks, or the cathedral at Rouen, with slight variations. So it was with the asparagus gratin. After my first taste of the sinfully sensuous green spears, enrobed in a flirtatious Mornay sauce with a crispy, cheesy crust, I simply had to have more.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Earlier in the week, I had purchased a pound of thin asparagus spears, thinking I might use them in some cold sesame noodles, a virtuous vegan dish. But when I prepared the noodles (ravishing, by the way), I forgot all about the asparagus. It was time to make amends to the offended spears, one day older in their chilly drawer. It was time to show them some heat. Meanwhile I discovered a nice, fresh block of Gruyère in the fridge, courtesy of the Long Suffering Husband. He was about to Get Lucky.
I followed Mark Bittman’s recipe again, but this time I used some Plugrá butter that was providentially on hand. Two tablespoons of butter, two tablespoons of flour. As I gently stirred the mixture, letting it brown in the saucepan, the aroma reminded me of shortbread cookies. There is, it has to be admitted, nothing like really good butter. Then I whisked it up with some milk, fresh-ground pepper and salt. I turned off the heat, and added the grated Gruyère. The savory aroma drew our cat Agnes, the grande dame of the house, and a cheese connoisseuse if one ever lived. She favors expensive imported curds, and will have nothing to do with rubbery mass-produced varieties.
Next I rubbed a glass dish with a cut garlic clove (as for fondue!). Breathlessly combining my lightly steamed asparagus with the umami-laden sauce, I gently spread the mixture in the dish. The final step was the addition of more grated Gruyère, a generous sprinkling of panko breadcrumbs, and a bit of paprika. When exposed to the broiler for a few minutes, this creates the indispensable crispy topping.
Asparagus and Gruyère is a classic pairing, like tomato and basil, tea and shortbread, Hepburn and Tracy…
I moaned when I tasted this. We had it with a delightful, inexpensive Sauv Blanc from Marlborough. For this dish, you really need a white wine with sufficient acidity to balance the creaminess of the sauce.
Yes, Agnes got a little taste. She approved!