When you read about cooking asparagus, the overriding tone you detect is one of concern. You must cook it just so gently to preserve the fragile flavor. You can even buy specially made pots for cooking asparagus. They’re tall and narrow so the bottoms of the spears will boil through while the tops are merely wafted in steam.
After a full spring of asparagus, I say hogwash. Here’s how I’m cooking asparagus these days: Snap off the tough bottoms, coat the spears lightly with olive oil and sprinkle them liberally with salt, arrange them in a single layer on a jelly roll pan and then stick the whole thing in an oven turned up as high as it will go.
Admittedly, what emerges 7 to 10 minutes later bears little resemblance to any asparagus you might have known until now. The color is a dark, intense green rather than the pale tint you’re probably used to, and there will probably be char marks (let’s hope so, anyway).
The texture is the reverse of what’s commonly desired--it’s soft in the center, but there are spots of crisp outside, where the intense heat has fried the frond.
It’s the flavor I like best, though. It is concentrated by the dry heat, and there is just the beginning of caramelization. It’s intensely asparagus-y in a way you can’t get from steaming.
Instead of being a tender, wilting thing fresh with spring’s first blush, this is a muscular asparagus--Asparagus the Barbarian.
(You can get the same effect on a grill too. That might seem a little funny, but here’s a hint: Line the spears up across the grid bars.)
Asparagus cooked this way is quite good on its own, with maybe a squeeze of lemon to freshen it. But it can also make the basis of a really wonderful pasta course, as I learned at Al Forno, Johanne Killeen and George Germon’s New American-style Italian restaurant in Providence, R.I.
They make a lasagna with roasted asparagus, which sounds unusual enough, but it gets weirder than that. In fact--just like my asparagus--their dish may not resemble any lasagna you’ve ever had.
Most lasagnas are built around goosh; there must be at least one layer that has that molten cheese thing going on. There’s nothing wrong with that, but in Italy, you can also find lasagnas that are actually light--in fact, lasagnas that aren’t even layered at all, except in the most free-form sense of the word.
These new-wave lasagnas are more about the velvety texture of fresh pasta sheets and the way they serve as a frame to show off a few simple ingredients. The sauce might be nothing more than reduced cream, or even just melted butter and grated Parmigiano. Think of it as a return to lasagna as a pasta dish rather than as a casserole.
To make the most delicate lasagna, you’ll need to roll out the pasta sheets as thin as possible. Crank the pasta machine as tight as it will get.
If you’ve tried this before, you know there are a few tricks involved. First, make sure the dough is well-kneaded before you begin to roll it out. Run it back and forth through the machine on the widest setting, folding the dough in thirds each time, until the surface has a glossy, satin-smooth texture.
Then let the dough rest for at least an hour to allow the glutens to relax. Through painful experience, I’ve learned that trying to roll out pasta that has just been kneaded usually results in dough sheets that warp and shrink in uncooperative ways.
If you do this right, the first two widths will go pretty easily. But you’ll still need to be very careful with the narrowest setting.
Be sure the sheets are cut in manageable lengths. Giuliano Bugialli can wave his yard-long pasta sheets like a flag, but you can’t--trust me, when they’re this thin they’ll rip at a sigh. And make sure the sheets are well-floured. Any moisture at all on the surface is enough to make a fresh pasta sheet stick and grab and rend itself into rags.
The good news is that once the asparagus and the pasta are cooked, they can be set aside until you’re ready to serve them. They’ll just need a 5-minute warming in a moderate oven. Once the asparagus has cooked, store it in a single layer, covered tightly with foil (covering it while it’s hot will turn that vivid green drab). Keep the cooked pasta sheets in a large bowl of hot? water to stop them from sticking together. Just be sure to pat the pasta dry with a tea towel before you put the dish together.