ASPARAGUS WITH HAM AND CHICKEN IN A PARMIGIANO BECIAMELLA
Ahhhh, asparagus season! We planted a bed of asparagus during our first season at this house in the spring of 1994. Asparagus requires patience, as you can harvest very little for the first few years if you want it to keep coming back. But given this obsessive treatment, our patch is cooperating, and the other night, we gathered the largest harvest yet, a good-size bowl of crisp, tender green shoots.
I didn't want to cook it as a mere vegetable, so I looked over a number of Italian asparagus/pasta recipes and then pulled together parts of several to make this hearty dish that really showcased our bounty. The procedure looks complicated but actually took only about 30 minutes from start to finish.
Cut about 1/2 pound fresh asparagus into 1-inch lengths, reserving the spear tips separately from the rest.
Cut about 8 to 12 ounces of ham into dice (using leftovers, I ran short of ham so added in some roast chicken meat, a combination that worked very nicely).
Have ready 1 cup of milk (I used skim milk), 2 tablespoons butter, 1 1/2 tablespoons flour and 1/2 cup grated Parmigiano Reggiano mixed with freshly ground black pepper and freshly grated nutmeg to taste.
Bring a small amount of water to the boil and simmer the asparagus stalks for 4 to 5 minutes or until just crisp-tender. Lift out with a slotted spoon and set aside. Put the asparagus spears in the hot water and let them blanch, off heat, for 1 to 2 minutes or just long enough to take off the raw edge. Drain and reserve.
Start 1 cup small pasta shells boiling in salted water. While they cook, heat the milk to near boiling on the stovetop or in the microwave. Melt the butter in a heavy saucepan over high heat with a smashed garlic clove; when the butter is sizzling hot, remove and discard the garlic. Stir in the flour, stirring quickly until it's well incorporated. Reduce heat to very low and Ad the hot milk, a little at a time, stirring constantly to make a smooth, thick sauce. When you've used all the milk, the sauce should be quite thick and smooth. Add the grated cheese and stir until it's melted; then add the diced meats, stir, and finally the asparagus stems. Leave to warm over very low heat while the pasta finishes up. When it's just al dente, drain and mix it in to the sauce; add the asparagus spear tips last, stir them in gently and serve.