- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 3, 2005

I live in western Massachusetts, which is celebrated for its beautiful mountain ranges and incredible fall foliage — but this area has another claim to fame. Some have called Hadley, the next town over from ours, the asparagus capital of the United States.

At this time of year, farmers in the region flood our supermarkets with lush green spears. It feels as if spring has truly arrived when I spot the signs that say ‘locally grown’ above mounds of the tall, sleek stalks in our groceries.

I find countless ways to use this delicious native asparagus while it is in season, especially when entertaining. I turn it into soup by simmering chopped spears in flavorful stock, then pureeing.

I steam, roast or grill asparagus to use as side dishes. Sometimes I give asparagus a primary role in the main course, as in the recipe that follows for penne with asparagus, mushrooms and prosciutto.

A quick-and-easy dish to assemble, this all-in-one entree makes a tempting centerpiece for a spring dinner. A trio of ingredients — prosciutto, crimini mushrooms and asparagus — is combined with cooked penne.

The prosciutto — cured but uncooked ham — is julienned and sauteed until crispy, and the mushrooms are sliced and quickly sauteed, as well. The asparagus is cut in small pieces and cooked with the pasta in a large pot of water, then drained and tossed with the ham and mushrooms. Butter, Parmesan cheese and chives add final notes of flavor to the dish.

You need only add a green salad and a basket of warm crusty bread to complete the main course. Wine glasses filled with sliced strawberries and garnished with dollops of whipped cream or scoops of ice cream, offered with a plate of homemade (or purchased) cookies, would be a fine finale.

This recipe yields 4 large servings but can be doubled with no problems.

Although I take great pride in our local asparagus harvest and its national status, you’re likely to find fresh regionally grown spears right now, wherever you live, so take advantage of this delectable, elegant vegetable, especially when company is coming.

Penne with asparagus, mushrooms and prosciutto

The mushrooms and prosciutto can be sauteed 3 hours ahead; leave uncovered at cool room temperature.

5 ounces thinly sliced prosciutto

10 ounces crimini mushrooms

1 pound slim asparagus

6 tablespoons olive oil, divided, plus more if needed

Salt

1 pound penne, farfalle or rigatoni pasta

2 tablespoons unsalted butter, preferably softened

3/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese, preferably Parmigiano-Reggiano, divided

1/4 cup chopped chives

Stack several prosciutto slices and cut them into julienne strips about 1/4 inch wide and 2 to 3 inches long. Continue until all the prosciutto has been cut in strips. Set aside. Slice the mushrooms thinly through the stems; set aside.

Cut off and discard the tough base ends from the asparagus. Then cut spears on the diagonal into 1-inch pieces. Set aside.

Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a large, heavy skillet set over medium-high heat. When hot, add the julienned prosciutto. Stir and cook until the strips are crisp, 3 to 4 minutes or longer. Remove with a slotted spoon; drain on paper towels.

Add remaining 4 tablespoons oil to the same skillet and place over medium-high heat. When hot, add the mushrooms. Stir and cook until golden brown, 4 to 5 minutes. If needed, add more oil to the skillet. Remove and set mushrooms aside.

Bring a large pot of water to boil, and add 1 tablespoon salt and the pasta. Cook 9 minutes, then add the sliced asparagus. Continue to cook about 3 minutes more, until the pasta is al dente (just tender to the bite) and asparagus is tender.

Drain pasta and asparagus in a colander, then return both to the pot in which they were cooked. Stir in butter and cup Parmesan cheese. Then stir in half the prosciutto and all the mushrooms. Taste and season with salt, as needed.

To serve, mound pasta in a large serving bowl or on a platter. Sprinkle with remaining prosciutto, remaining cheese and chives. Makes 4 servings.

TRIBUNE MEDIASERVICES

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