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Snapshots From Italy: Hammer Your Spears

Italians have an undeserved reputation for hammering vegetables to a fault, an accusation most often leveled at us by the" tender-crisp" camp. While I agree that cooking vegetables to the point of disintegration can be yucky, I think undercooked veggies are an insult to the vegetal world. Too many fine, deserving vegetables suffer an inconsequential position in a meal by being left in a slightly crisp state of unfulfilled flavor that no sauce can rescue.

Asparagus are the perfect example of a vegetable that needs a good long hammering (ahem) in a hot oven. Sorry, fans of tender-crisp, but I really dislike waterlogged, boiled asparagus, and steaming them renders them equally tasteless. If you don't believe me, bite into a "tender-crisp," steamed asparagus spear—no cheating with mayo, please—and tell me if any fireworks go off.

But baking asparagus in the oven with butter and Parmigiano Reggiano extracts an entirely new dimension of taste. Sure, nearly anything tastes better with butter and parm, but I assure you it isn't the dairy products that shine forth in this preparation—it's the deepened, intense flavor of the asparagus themselves that steals the show. By drying out their inherent moisture, and the extra water they always suck up when they are blanched, we get to taste the real flavor of asparagus—like mineral-rich soil, bright-green moss, and a touch of mushroomy funk. The butter and cheese simply add that extra dimension of salty richness.

This recipe comes straight from the Book of My Mom, who never blanched and shocked a vegetable in her life, God bless her. I concede that if you want to keep a bit more of that green color alive, you can shock the spears after you have blanched them, but be prepared for the big color fade.

Roasted Asparagus with Parmigiano Reggiano

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I boil the asparagus in salted water until they just begin to yield to pressure, about 3 to 4 minutes. Drained, they go into a foiled-lined, shallow baking pan, spears forward and no space between them; Mom always used a pie tin, so that remains my sentimental favorite. I drizzle them with a little olive oil and roll them around to coat them, and then sprinkle them heavily with grated Parmigiano Reggiano or Grana Padano. Last, and most important, I dot them evenly with unsalted butter cut into tiny cubes. The spots where the butter melts get especially brown and almost crisp, and I like that this effect is slightly uneven.

Put the pan in a hot, 400-degree oven, and roast the heck out of them, until they are slightly browned and bubbling. Yeah, they'll go from bright-green to that olive-colored tint of doom that tender-crispers bemoan. But trust me, a bunch of spears never had it so well.

About the author: Gina DePalma is the pastry chef at Mario Batali's Babbo restaurant in New York City and the author of Dolce Italiano: Desserts from the Babbo Kitchen. She is currently in Rome doing research for her next book and further exploring her passions for Italian food.

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