Asparagus and Gabriel cheese gratin

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I like asparagus roasted, grilled, warm in salads or dunked in mayonnaise, and all the other ways it likes to be done, but this is my favourite asparagus dish and the first one I reach for when the season starts. There are strong flavours here, so balance is important, which is why I like to do each plate separately. Too much of the cream sauce can drown the asparagus, too much of the crumble will spoil the texture as well as the flavour, and even the balance in the crumble is variable. Gabriel is a hard cheese with a tangy, peppery taste, mild when it’s young but intensifying as it ages, so the amount you need can vary. The perfect gratin will have just enough sauce to be absorbed by the asparagus and the crumble, which is scattered loosely, but generously, over the plate. If you see someone scooping it up with their finger or licking the plate, you’ve miscalculated, but obviously not too badly.

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Ingredients

  • 16-20 asparagus spears
  • 1 onion, quartered
  • 4 whole garlic cloves
  • 80 mls white wine
  • 150 mls cream
  • 1 tsp strong prepared mustard
  • salt and pepper
  • 60 g breadcrumbs
  • 40 g Gabriel cheese
  • 1 dstspn butter

Method

SNAP THE TOUGH ENDS OFF THE ASPARAGUS, wash them and save them. Cook the asparagus tips in boiling water for a few minutes - they should be just short of tender - then cool them. Now put the ends into a pot with the onion and garlic, the wine and about 300 mls of the asparagus water. Bring it to the boil and keep at a lively simmer for about 15 minutes. Strain off the vegetables and return the stock to the pan. You should have 150mls left at most; if there is more, simply boil it for a few minutes more to reduce the volume. Then pour in the cream and mustard, and cook the sauce at a rolling boil until you have about 200 mls of a fairly thick pouring sauce. Season cautiously with salt and pepper.

Make a crumble by combining the crumbs and cheese and stirring in the butter, which should be softened almost to the point of melting, and some seasoning. Now you have two choices, depending on your facilities and ambitions: (a) arrange the asparagus in an oven dish with the cream poured over, sprinkle a generous but not blanketing amount of the crumble over that, and place the dish under a hot grill until the crumble browns and the cheese begins to melt; or (b) arrange individual portions on plates and grill. I prefer the second, it only takes a minute for each plate and gives you much more control over the amount of sauce on each portion.