Growing up in Germany in the early 60s made for many interesting childhood memories, but few of them had anything to do with vegetables. We ate a lot of canned fruits and vegetables from the military P/X in those days—not much to remember about those items except they tasted great to childhood me even though they were mushy and laden with either sugary syrup or lots of salt.
While we grocery shopped almost daily in the cities, villages and towns where we lived, fruits and vegetables from those days aren’t much in my memory. In general, I remember the green grocer as a fairly austere place, lots of onions, apples and potatoes and little else save for the occasional “special” brought in and placed in the front of the store several times during the year. In the spring, the “special” was usually white asparagus. The first time I recall tasting this, I was unimpressed. The whole family agreed that it was stringy, bitter and bland all at the same time. Never one to give up easily, my mother went to the grocer and complained of the taste and texture and the pushback was fierce—“no, no—you must be cooking it wrong, it is a delicacy—so delicious!!!!!” She was instructed to peel the spears and then simmer them in milk. And we went from that simple instruction to this simple dish that we all looked forward to enjoying a couple of times each spring. You could dress it up more with lemon zest, capers, or any number of herbs, but be sparing– the taste of white asparagus is so subtle that too much excitement will drown out the sweetness that this milk simmer gives it.
White Asparagus Gratin
12 spears White Asparagus
2 cups (approximately) milk
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 cup fresh bread crumbs (made from any good tasting bread, pulsed fine in a food processor)
Kosher salt and fresh ground pepper to taste (about ¼ teaspoon of salt and a few grinds of pepper)
Fresh Parmesan, curled with a vegetable peeler, for the top
Cut off the bottom 1-inch of the asparagus spears. Using a vegetable peeler, lay each spear on a flat cutting board and peel from just under the tips to the end of each spear. Place the peeled spears in a medium saucepan and add just enough milk to cover. Place over medium-low heat, bring to a simmer and cook gently until the asparagus is very tender when probed with a fork. Remove the spears to paper towels to drain and then arrange on a platter.
While the asparagus is cooking, melt the butter in a small sauté pan and add the breadcrumbs and salt and pepper to taste. Sprinkle the breadcrumbs over the asparagus, top with the Parmesan and serve immediately.