There was a moment, about fifteen years ago, when New York City chefs seemed to collectively discover asparagus alla Milanese. The infatuation lasted at least a couple years, if not longer. Casual Italian restaurants that had embraced regional Italian cooking and the use of more seasonal ingredients added the dish to their spring menus, and New Yorkers went nuts.
It was nothing more than a handful of cooked asparagus spears with a fried egg and grated Parmigiano-Reggiano on top. Those were innocent times indeed.
"Innocent" may be a good way to describe asparagus alla Milanese, as well. It's a beautifully simple celebration of spring, featuring two symbols of the season. Asparagus is one of the first foods to break through the winter crust of soil, and the egg, while now a year-round convenience, was once tied to the ebb and flow of annual daylight and temperature changes—chickens, left to their own natural rhythms, lay the most eggs in the spring, when days grow warmer and longer.
On a technical level, there's not all that much to say about cooking the dish. The asparagus are blanched or steamed until tender. The egg is fried. They're arranged on a plate and the cheese rains down.
I have a few opinions about some smaller details. I think the asparagus should truly be tender, with barely any al dente bite left to it. I like the way the stalks grow increasingly juicy as they soften, which I think plays well with the textures of the egg. And those textures? Well, the yolk should be runny so that it creates a sauce as it seeps over the asparagus and mixes with the cheese. And I like the whites somewhere between crisp and tender, so that they have a lacy edge that's sizzled and brown, but are otherwise soft enough to cut with the side of a fork. But that's just me. You can cook the two main components however you like.
What I really like about a dish as simple as this, aside from the pleasure of eating it, is how well it serves as a springboard for inspiration. Working with the basic idea of asparagus + egg + grated cheese, we can come up with an endless number of variations. It's a perfect exercise in creativity—the limitations are a huge help, allowing us to come up with new ideas and make decisions without feeling lost or overwhelmed, which is often what happens when you have too many choices. If you want to learn how to become a better, more intuitive cook, riffing on an easy classic like this is one of the best ways I know.
Here are a couple examples I came up with to demonstrate. One stays close to the original, the other strays farther away. You should make them all. Then you should start to think of your own. Maybe see if you can come up with a new one each week until the end of spring. You may surprise yourself.
Broiled Asparagus With Fried Egg and Gorgonzola
It's fair to say that asparagus alla Milanese, in its original form, is a near-perfect dish. But that doesn't mean a few changes and additions can't make something that's also insanely delicious.
For this one, I started by thinking about the asparagus, and how I could change the basic blanching method to add interest. I'm a huge fan of asparagus that's been seared with high heat until blistered. Sometimes I do it in a pan, and sometimes I just toss it with oil and jam it under the broiler. The resulting spears are less juicy than blanched ones, but with a deep woodsy, smoky, and intense flavor.
That intensity can stand up to more pungent flavors, so I next thought about the cheese. I didn't want to get rid of the Parm, but I did want to add to it. I grabbed a piece of gorgonzola dolce, which is sweet and creamy, and tore chunks of it on top of the asparagus, allowing them to melt a little from the heat.
Next came the fried egg, but on top of that, in addition to the grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, I added toasted breadcrumbs that I'd seasoned with olive oil, frizzled sage, and red pepper flakes. They add even more texture and punch to the dish, and their toasty flavor goes well with the blistered asparagus. The dish is still recognizably "alla Milanese" at heart, but with a much less subdued attitude.
Kimchi and Asparagus Sauté With Fried Egg
My second variation is even less like the original, using it more as a winking reference and less as a direct quote. Along the same lines as my first variation, I thought about how else I could play with the approach to the asparagus itself, and decided this time to stir-fry it. Borrowing some Korean flavors, I did a combination of pan-roasted sliced asparagus with kimchi and Spam—because you know that's gonna be amazing with the fried egg on top.
On top, once again a shower of grated Parm, but in addition to that, I decided to chuck a chunk of cured Spanish chorizo into the freezer, then grate it onto the dish like a porky Funfetti. The grated sausage adds another layer of animal funk and spice, intermingling with the grated cheese and boosting the Spam's milder meaty flavor.
It's not recognizable as asparagus alla Milanese at all, and yet all the building blocks are there—the asparagus, the egg, and the grated cheese.
What can you come up with?