A Brilliant Optical illusion, this recipe is a dead ringer for the classic prosciutto-wrapped asparagus we love. The surprise, of course, is that it is one-hundred-percent vegetarian, and undeniably delicious.
Aiming to overcome the myth that food sans meat is non-dinner-party friendly, chefs Bruce Weinstein and Mark Scarbrough created a whole cookbook full of crowd-pleasing plant-based recipes. Each one, compiled and featured in Vegetarian Dinner Parties, is elegant and simple, just like these wrapped spears. Plan on making this recipe for your next Sunday brunch or cozy fall dinner – it’s the perfect accompaniment to your favorite quiche, soufflé or grain-stuffed pumpkin. Here are a few more thoughts on the dish from this veggie-cooking power duo…
Ever the side dish, never the meal: Asparagus is the bridesmaid of vegetables. So we’ve gussied up those (dare we say it?) lackluster spears with radicchio poached in wine and two kinds of vinegar for extra spike. Pickling the leaves in this way softens their bitterness and brings out a rather unexpected sweetness amid the sour notes. We then wrap those leaves around the asparagus, morphing its essential grassiness into better elegance. Perhaps best of all, this spiky but straightforward starter can be made well in advance.
Asparagus Spears Wrapped in Pickled Radicchio
2 large round radicchio heads (radicchio di Chioggia, about 10 oz each)
1 cup dry but fruit-forward red wine, such as zinfandel
1/2 cup red wine vinegar
1/2 cup balsamic vinegar
1/2 cup olive oil
1 lb thin asparagus spears
3 oz Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, shaved (about 3/4 cup)
1. Core the radicchio heads and carefully separate the leaves. Use the 25 largest leaves and reserve the remainder for a salad later in the week.
2. Bring the wine and both vinegars to a boil in a small saucepan over high heat. Add 5 radicchio leaves, push them under the bubbling liquid with a wooden spoon or kitchen tongs, and keep them there, simmering until wilted and tender, about 3 minutes. Transfer the leaves to a bowl and drizzle them with 1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil. Repeat this process 3 more times. You’ll then have 2 tablespoons oil for a last batch – and you’ll make one extra leaf, a safeguard against any tearing. Let the radicchio leaves cool completely, about 1 hour at room temperature.
3. Fill a large bowl with ice and water. Bring a large skillet of water to a boil over high heat. Add the asparagus to the skillet and blanch for 1 minute from the time the spears hit the water. Use a slotted spoon to transfer them to the ice water. Cool to room temperature, then drain and dry completely.
4. Roll each asparagus spear tightly in a radicchio leaf. Set 3 on each serving plate. Top each serving with the shaved cheese and coarsely ground black pepper or cracked black peppercorns.
• To core radicchio heads, use a paring knife to make a conical incision around that core, pulling it out in one piece. Peel the leaves off from this indentation rather than by their fragile, leafy edges.
• Blanching the radicchio leaves is truly a matter of timing. It might be best to blanch a few extra leaves in case any don’t come out right.
• The asparagus spears should be thin but not too thin – say, a little larger than a #2 pencil. If they’re too thick, shave them down with a vegetable peeler.
• Pickle the radicchio leaves up to 2 days in advance. Once cooled, store, covered, in the fridge.
• Blanch the asparagus spears up to 1 day in advance. Store, covered, in the fridge as well.
• Wrap the asparagus spears up to 4 hours in advance. Store, covered, at room temperature.
• Pair with a creamy red ale. It will tame the sour spark in the leaves and add a floral mellowness the dish admittedly lacks.
Reprinted from Vegetarian Dinner Parties by Bruce Weinstein & Mark Scarbrough. Copyright (c) 2014 by Bruce Weinstein and Mark Scarbrough. By permission of Rodale Books.