Asparagus is the early star of our farmers' markets. It will appear in abundance at the Baltimore Farmers' Market, which opens for the season Sunday.
Asparagus is also the central player this week in a new Sun feature we're inviting you to participate in, called the Farmers' Market Challenge. The idea is to cook a dish that uses local ingredients sold in farmers' markets. In the weeks to come, we will publish recipes from readers who have met this challenge. You can upload yours at baltimoresun.com/marketchallenge.
This year's asparagus crop looks good, according to Cinda Sebastian, who grows the vegetable on a 2-acre patch of her Carroll county farm. "We are picking ridiculous amounts of asparagus, 50 to 100 pounds a day," said Sebastian, whose Gardeners Gourmet operation deals in locally grown herbs and vegetables. She, like several other local asparagus growers, will be selling stalks at area markets such as Saturday's 32nd Street market in Waverly and the downtown Sunday market.
Asparagus is resilient, sending up new shoots right after stalks are harvested. "It seems like it grows back in 24 hours," Sebastian said, "but it probably takes a couple days." She grows both green and red asparagus. Red asparagus turns green when you cook it, she said, unless you cook it in a little water and vinegar. Some folks think red asparagus is sweeter than green, she said. Other folks can't taste a difference.
How long local asparagus is with us depends on the weather. It thrives during the cool days of the spring. But when the weather gets hot, the stalks get fuzzy, the plant goes to seed and season is over, usually by mid-June, Sebastian said.
In addition to asparagus, the dish we made calls for bacon, eggs, butter, onions, butter, cream and cheese. All of these are locally produced goods sold by vendors at the Sunday market, as well as other area markets.
It is a dish that could be served for brunch on Mother's Day or for a light supper. Even though the asparagus has plenty of company, its flavor comes through. The cheese topping is another dominant flavor; we used smoked mozzarella in one rendition and cheddar in another.
Try this dish and tell us what you think. Better yet, make another dish using fare bought at a farmers' market and send us the recipe.
Bacon, asparagus and egg gratin
1 tablespoon butter, plus a teaspoon to coat gratin pan
1 onion, chopped
8 ounces asparagus spears (about 12 spears), trimmed and cut on diagonal into 1-inch pieces
6 ounces bacon or ham, cut into 1/2 inch cubes
1/3 cup plus 4 teaspoons heavy cream
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
4 large eggs
1 cup (packed) grated cheese (smoked mozzarella or cheddar)
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Butter a 9 1/2 inch oval gratin pan. Melt butter in a heavy medium skillet over medium heat. Add onion and sauté until beginning to soften, about 5 minutes. Add asparagus; sprinkle with salt and pepper. Cook until asparagus begins to soften, about 4 minutes. Add bacon and stir 1 minute. Add 1/3 cup of cream and a pinch of cayenne, cook until heated through. Mix in mustard. Transfer to the prepared pan.
Make 4 nests in the mixture, spacing evenly. Break 1 egg into each nest. Drizzle 1 teaspoon cream over each egg. Sprinkle with salt, pepper and cayenne. Bake until the whites are beginning to set but are still runny, about 12 minutes.
Preheat broiler. Sprinkle cheese over dish. Immediately broil until cheese is melted and beginning to brown, about 30 seconds. Serve immediately
Adapted from "Bon Appétit: Fast Easy Fresh"