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In the realm of spring vegetables, asparagus is the cook’s greatest ally. It can be steamed, boiled, sautéed, stir-fried, roasted, or grilled. It comes elegantly thin or fat and juicy. It’s impressive on its own, as a first course; as a side to chicken, fish, ham, pork, or beef; or worked into pasta primavera, risotto, a flan, or an omelet. It is delicious hot, chilled, or room temperature. It swings from simple, even austere, presentations (salt, pepper, olive oil, and a hit of fresh lemon juice) to more complex ones (tarragon sherry vinaigrette, say, or a blood orange aioli) without losing its presence.

Plus, everyone just loves it. Although it is basically a seasonless vegetable these days, most people greet their local crop as something special and beautiful, and eat it with joyous, unabashed greed. That is why you must always buy plenty; I usually allot at least a half pound per person. On the off chance there are any leftovers, they’re delicious the next morning, warmed through and dipped into a runny soft-boiled egg.

Asparagus is one of the few perennial vegetables, and it’s a recurring subject in this space, too—how can I not write about it when I practically live on the stuff this time of year? You’ll find history, buying tips, recipes, and more in the archives—here, here, and here.

The other evening, I was all set to get the cooking out of the way early and serve asparagus room temperature, with a shalloty vinaigrette. My plan changed when in the afternoon, a front bullied its way through, and between the rain and dramatic drop in temperature, something a bit cozier was called for.

So this is what I did. Even though butter and pancetta, with its beautiful, flavorful fat, are involved, it’s lighter (and easier) than a typical asparagus gratin, and I was really proud of myself. Until, that is, I figured I should do some due diligence and found that Nigel Slater has virtually the exact same recipe in Tender: A cook and his vegetable patch. “A rubble of cooked, chopped pancetta, and especially its melted fat, makes a gorgeous seasoning for a fat bunch of spears,” he wrote. And how.

Asparagus with Pancetta and Parm

Pancetta is one of those specialty ingredients that has become a staple, especially with the increasing availability of Iowa’s own La Quercia brand. It’s available at Whole Foods and other high-end supermarkets (the website has a state-by-state store locator) and by mail order through Zingerman’s.

1 bundle of medium to large asparagus spears

About 1 generous tablespoon unsalted butter

An enjoyable amount of chopped pancetta or bacon

Freshly grated Parmigiano-Romano (use a rasp or the tiny tear-shaped holes on a box grater)

1. Preheat the oven to 400ºF. Rinse or soak the asparagus very well to remove any sand or grit. Pat dry, then snap off the woody ends and peel the lower part of each stalk with a vegetable peeler. Lay the asparagus in a large skillet, with the tips all facing the same direction, and barely cover with water. Bring the water to a gentle boil and cook the asparagus until just barely tender, testing the spears with a knife to gauge their doneness. Drain the asparagus on a clean kitchen towel.

2. Meanwhile, melt the butter in an ovenproof skillet or sauté pan over moderately high heat. Add the pancetta and cook until golden. Remove from the heat.

3. Scrape the pancetta and the fat in the pan to one side and add the asparagus. Spoon the pancetta and fat over the asparagus, then sprinkle with the Parm. Put the pan in the oven and bake until the cheese is melted, 5 minutes or so.


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