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Asparagus Spears Baked in Creamy Parmesan Sauce

A creamy parmesan sauce and toasted almonds are a delicious match for fresh asparagus spears. Photo by Sue Doeden1 / 2
Asparagus is one of those vegetables that looks as good as it tastes. Photo by Sue Doeden2 / 2

Waiting for the first delectable spears of asparagus to break through the soil in the spring takes patience.

For days, I rushed out to the weedy garden in my yard. This was a prolific weed-free vegetable garden when my husband and I bought our house 10 years ago. Despite my lack of gardening skills, there are a couple of crowns of asparagus that were buried in the garden years ago that continue to produce.

With each trip out to the garden, my anticipation grew. Once that first tip poked its little head out of the soil, the growth continued rapidly. On Friday, before I left for a weekend out of town, I trekked out to the asparagus bed, and after a quick check, decided the tender spears could wait until Monday to be snapped out of the earth. On Monday morning, I skipped out the back door, a smile on my face, basket in hand. I was not ready for what I was about to discover. Healthy asparagus spears with their tightly formed tips had suddenly transformed into tall, thin stems with delicate branches ready to leaf out like ferns.

The fresh, delicious taste of just-picked spring asparagus would not elude me for long. A short ride in the car led me right to asparagus grown by a local farmer. I bought three big bunches, brought them home and smugly ate to my heart's content. Who needs a garden, anyway, when there are gardeners and farmers who know how to grow and harvest asparagus and are willing to share it at the farmers market? Humph!

Asparagus is one of those vegetables that looks as good as it tastes. The fastest path to asparagus nirvana is to steam them for just a few minutes, and while still warm and slightly crisp, drizzle the spears with butter and sprinkle with salt. Roasting or grilling takes a bit more time but produces more intense flavor and, as the natural sugars caramelize, a great crisp texture. In the oven, asparagus spears rolled in a little olive oil can roast for about 5 to10 minutes at 450 degrees. When the asparagus is crisp-tender, I like to drizzle balsamic vinegar over the spears, sprinkle them with some salt and serve them. Simple, yet special.

After I'd gotten my fill of nibbling on raw asparagus spears, I decided to break out of the steam, roast or grill methods of asparagus preparation. I cracked open "The Flavor Thesaurus," by Niki Segnit, a resource I often use when developing recipes. Segnit writes that salty dairy ingredients are a heavenly match for asparagus: butter, Parmesan and hollandaise sauce simultaneously contrast with and enhance its sweet, sulfurous vegetable flavor.

That was all the inspiration I needed to create a sauce with minced shallots sautéed in a small amount of melted butter. That fragrant mixture created a base for the addition of milk and tart sour cream, thickened with almond flour and grated Parmesan. The Parmesan sauce smothers fresh, rinsed and dried asparagus spears as they bake in a 350-degree oven. The result is an easy, but elegant, dish of creamy light sauce, a little tart and a little salty, blanketing crisp-tender asparagus spears. Toasted almonds scattered over the top and a few ribbons of lemon zest finish off the dish.

The amazing bright flavor of Asparagus Spears Baked in Creamy Parmesan Sauce makes the kind of statement that I love. It's fresh. It's seasonal. It's local. It's real food. It's fast. It's delicious.

Asparagus Spears Baked in Creamy Parmesan Sauce

2 tablespoons raw whole almonds

1 tablespoon butter

1 shallot, minced or 1 tablespoon finely minced onion

2 tablespoons almond flour

3/4 cup milk

1 tablespoon sour cream

1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice

2 ounces (1/2 cup packed) shredded Parmesan cheese

1 pound fresh asparagus spears, all about the same size

Grated lemon zest

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Toast raw almonds on a small oven-safe dish in oven as it preheats. It will take 8 to 10 minutes. Remove from oven and set aside.

Melt butter in a small saucepan over medium heat. Add minced shallot and sauté for a couple of minutes, until shallot is just tender. Add almond flour and stir to blend. Remove pan from heat. Add milk in 3 batches, blending well after each addition. Stir in sour cream and lemon juice. Return pan to medium heat and stir until hot. Add Parmesan and continue to heat and stir until cheese is melted and sauce slightly thickens.

Snap tough ends off of the asparagus spears. Rinse with cool water and shake off extra moisture. Arrange asparagus spears in a baking dish. Pour sauce over spears. Bake in 350-degree oven for 10 to 15 minutes, depending on how thick the spears are. The asparagus cooks fast, so watch carefully and remove when the spears are still crisp-tender.

Coarsely chop toasted almonds and sprinkle over baked asparagus. Scatter some lemon zest over all. Serve immediately. Makes 4 servings.

Tips from the cook

--Almond flour/meal is simply very finely ground skinless, blanched almonds. I use Bob's Red Mill Almond Flour, which is available in all well-stocked grocery stores.

--I like to arrange the asparagus spears on 4 oven-safe luncheon or salad plates, pour the sauce on and bake right on the plates. It's an elegant way to serve Asparagus Spears Baked in Creamy Parmesan Sauce, and the asparagus stays nice and warm through the meal.

--To keep asparagus spears fresh in the refrigerator for up to a week, slice the very ends of the spears off and stand them in a wide-mouth jar with a little water in the bottom. Cover loosely with a plastic bag.