As always, the notes about this recipe will be at the bottom. White asparagus--and this recipe--are a new favorite of mine. If this is a new produce item for you (like it was for me the first try on this sort of gratin recipe!) be sure to read the notes at the end for best tips.
1 pound white asparagus*
1 ½ cups milk (I used unsweetened low-fat coconut milk)**
¾ cup grated parmesan cheese
¾ cup grated Parrano cheese
⅓ cup flour
3 tablespoons butter
2 teaspoons fennel seed
cubed pancetta, to your liking
¼ cup bread crumbs
Start a large pot of water, salted, over medium-high heat.
Preheat the oven to 400°.
In a sauté pan add 3 tablespoons of butter, and let it melt over low-medium heat. Whisk in the flour until a paste forms. (For newer cooks, this is called a roux! It's a base used for thickening sauces.)
Slowly add the milk while whisking gently to combine. (Side note: Congrats! This is called a bechamel, one of the mother sauces. Adding less milk results in a paste, adding more results in a sauce you'd want to use in a lasagna.)
Add 1 teaspoon of the fennel seeds and continue to gently whisk until the sauce thickens.
Once thickened, remove from heat and add the cheeses. Salt and pepper to your liking. Feel free to add a dash of nutmeg, if you want to add a layer of warmth to this dish. The cheese will mostly melt--refer to my photos below and check the elasticity of the sauce. Set aside.
Cut the bottom off the stalk of the asparaguses, and peel the base (save for the tip). Once the water has boiled, turn the heat down and add the asparagus to the water.
Let the asparagus cook for 10-12 minutes in the simmering water, occasionally checking the texture. When they are soft enough to lightly bend against the side of the pot and the spoon, drain them and transfer to a buttered oven-safe dish.
Gently pour the cheese sauce on top of the asparagus. Lightly dust with breadcrumbs, and put in the oven for ~20 minutes.
In a sauté pan (possibly the same as before, just rinsed) add the cubed pancetta over low-medium heat.
When the fat has just started to render on the pancetta, add the remaining 1 teaspoon of fennel. Let the pancetta cook down, lightly disrupting throughout the process until crispy. Transfer to a paper-towel-lined paper.
When the top of the bread crumbs are brown, remove from the oven. Sprinkle with the fennel and pancetta, and serve warm.
*When buying white asparagus, check to see that the tips are still light and not damp, darkened, or mushy. Buy them when they have thick stalks, rather than the slender size you might be familiar with green asparagus
**I use unsweetened, low-fat coconut milk and add 1 tablespoon of cream or whole milk. Coconut milk has lower cholesterol, sugars (so long as you buy the right kind!), and carbohydrates while offering more manganese and magnesium (which I need); but the fattier dairy does help make this a creamy, dreamy dish. Alternatively, just use whatever milk you prefer and taste as you go. I found that coconut milk has its own sort of nutty profile, which can enhance (or clash) with the nutmeg, depending on the type of cheese you use.
The finished product: the bubbling bechamel up the sides, the lightly browned bread crumbs, and the crispy fennel pancetta on top. I promise, just below the surface, the asparagus are waiting! When you serve them, you are always welcome to garnish with some leftovers or additional pancetta-fennel topping.
I tend to serve this alongside a vegetable-full pesto pasta. The creamy, cheesy sauce is rich, and the fennel and pancetta do a great job of cutting through it, but for an entire meal, some bright, fresh vegetables really provide a nice complement.
Left: the just-sweating pancetta, with fennel seeds. Right: the peeled white asparagus.
Please note that white asparagus is brittle! While the green variety has some flexibility and tenderness while raw, I broke two of my asparaguses from applying too much pressure with the peeler. I didn't peel my stalks the first time I tried this recipe, and it was far too fibrous for my teeth to manage. The second go-around I peeled more intently, and
Adding cheese, creating culinary *magic*, and prepping for the final bake.