Baked Asparagus with Guanciale & balsamic vinegar
Asparagus was always steamed and smeared with butter in the '70s and it was only when we were invited to lunch in a winemaker's home that we ever thought of cooking it differently. Inevitably baked asparagus is now a popular way to present this most seasonal of vegetables. We have some raised beds at home which we soon realised were slightly problematic inasmuch as we like to spend much of the summer travelling around which means we are rarely able to tend them. The solution: plant lots of asparagus crowns. They do take a few years to yield much but we are now at the stage when we are getting a couple of good meals out of them every week during the season and in another year or two, we'll have to be giving it away.
This is incredibly simple but equally tasty: heat the oven to 180C and put the washed and cut asparagus in a frying pan with a little water and a lid and bring to the boil. Cook for just a couple of minutes before draining the asparagus. Wrap four or five spears in some Guanciale (cured ham will do but Guanciale is much better) then grate some parmesan cheese over the top. Bake for 8-10 minutes. When cooked, transfer to plates and pour a dash or two of balsamic vinegar to enhance the flavours.
The type of vinegar used is important. We have had this before with a regular supermarket-bought balsamic and its pleasant but, when we tried it with the Giuseppe Giusti "Riccardo Giusti" one, we knew there was no going back. The intensity of the flavour of this vinegar is phenomenal (it may seem expensive at first but you need so little of it, it goes a very long way) and it adds an almost umami-like quality to this dish with its sweetness and tartness sharpening the tastes wonderfully.