Asparagus Sformato

Asparagus Sformato with Chive Cream and Arugula Salad

You say sfor-MATE-o and I say sfor-MAH-to—but what exactly does the word mean? Leonardo da Vinci, first credited with using the sformato painting technique in works like the Mona Lisa—would like you to know that the term derives from fumo (smoke) and connotes a soft shading between colors and tones. These little tarts can be made with other vegetables, but they reach artistic perfection with our fresh local asparagus.

Sformato Custard

About 20-25 stalks asparagus (for this dish, thicker is better)
I Tbs olive oil
2 ½ Tbs butter
1 large leek (white and pale-green parts only, sliced thinly into half-moons—about 2 cups)
I cup whole milk
2 Tbs flour
¼ tsp freshly grated nutmeg
½ cup grated Parmesan
½ cup grated Gruyère
3 beaten eggs
½ cup fine breadcrumbs
1 Tbs softened butter to grease ramekins
Salt and pepper
Special equipment: 8 ramekins, each measuring ¾ of a cup

Trim the tough, woody ends off the asparagus stalks. Bring a large pan of lightly salted water to a boil before adding stalks. Let water return to a boil and simmer asparagus for 1 minute until tender but still firm. Cool asparagus in a colander under cold water to stop cooking before draining on paper towels. Gently heat olive oil and 1 tablespoon of the butter in a skillet. Add sliced leeks and cook over very low heat until tender, being careful not to let them brown. If they start to color and stick, add a couple of tablespoons of water. Remove from heat and set aside. Slice the tips from the asparagus spears and set aside. Cut the remaining stalks into two-inch pieces and put them in a food processor along with the leeks. Puree until smooth and set aside.

Heat the milk in a small sauce pan (do not boil). Melt the remaining 1½ tablespoons of butter in a larger sauce pan and stir in the flour. Cook over gentle heat for a couple of minutes until pale golden brown. Add the milk and bring to a simmer, stirring continuously over low heat until thick. Add nutmeg and cheeses. Salt and pepper to taste. Fold in about 2 cups of the cooked asparagus- and-leek puree (you may have some left over) before adding eggs. Whisk until mixture is smooth and well-blended.
Heat oven to 350 degrees. Line the bottom of a heavy roasting pan with a dishtowel. Grease ramekins with softened butter, dust with the breadcrumbs, and fill them with puree, up to about half an inch from the top.. Bring a kettle of water to a boil. Place custards in the pan, adding boiling water halfway up the sides of the ramekins. Place the pan in the middle shelf of the oven and bake for about 30 minutes until set. Remove ramekins from pan and set aside.

Chive Cream

½ cup heavy cream
2 Tbs chopped chives

Place chives and cream in a small pan and warm over low heat. Do not let cream boil. Season with a little salt and set aside.

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