The green rockets of spring are taking to the air. Finally, we can get our noses out of the misted produce isles and the never-ending harvest of mediocre corporate veggies. Here in southeast Ohio, asparagus is the first hint of what is to come: morel mushrooms, ramps, strawberries, rhubarb, blueberries, kholrabi, garlic tops, arugula, mustard greens and kale, until the baby zucchini blossoms herald the full frontal assault of summer.
When I visited the Ervin Hershberger farm in Chesterhill Ohio, Ervin’s wife Rachael shoved a one-year old in my arms and we stumbled out back to the asparagus field. “I don’t know if there’s…oh my, we DO have alot of asparagus,” she said as I looked at the green stalks peeking their delicious heads up from the field. Short and fat ones grew alongside long skinny ones just waiting for me to grab and twist before dropping them into the aspargus bucket. As my delight in the first bounty of spring heightened, I kept reminding myself, “Don’t drop baby John…don’t drop baby John…don’t…”
The best hint on buying asparagus is to never buy asparagus that has been cut with a knife. Asparagus has a fabulous way of telling you when you’ve reached the spot where the stalk turns to wood. Grab the stalk and twist – it breaks right at that inedible point.
While waiting tables in Chicago years ago, my friend Chrisensio told me that, while new to this country, he tried every job as a migrant worker. “The two jobs I would rather die than go back to are cutting asparagus and planting pine trees in a clear-cut forest.” The field managers walked among the pickers, telling them to cut under the earth to get as much poundage as possible. Sounds like a real back-breaking job. It also gave me a hint of how are foodstuffs are managed by the large companies.
I decided to make a pizza with asparagus using Serrano ham from Spain. I will pair this magnificent combination with Manchego cheese (Spanish cheddar from the La Mancia region of Spain), sweet San Marzano tomatoes,and fresh mozzarella.
Jamon Serrano means “Mountain ham” and can best be described as having a taste like Italian prosciutto crudo or the French Jambon Bayonne. This ham is dry cured with salt and is only made from the “Landrace” breed of pig from the Sierra mountains in Spain. The taste, compared to the Prosciutto crudo, is more of an upfront salty-pork flavor and noticably lacking in the last Parmesan-umami taste at the back of the throat that prosciutto exhibits. I like this ham on pizza because of the amount of fat in each slice. I tear the fatty pieces to cook in the oven (which creates some bodacious cracklings), while saving the crudo for topping the warm pizza.
I love fresh raw asparagus on pizza as much as the next guy but with this recipe, I take off the outer skin and “shock” the asparagus. This par-cooks the aspargus for 30 seconds and then fast-cools it, setting the chlorophyl or green color.
Asparagus and Serrano Ham Pizza
4 to 7 fat stalks of fresh, local aparagus
6 to 7 slices of Serrano ham
3 whole canned San Marzano tomatoes
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
4 tablespoons shredded imported Manchego cheese
5 to 6 small balls of Boccocini (fresh mozzarella balls)
Make two 7 ounce dough balls. Freeze one for later or double this recipe for 2 pies.
Preheat an upturned cookie sheet on the middle rack of your oven set at 475 degrees.
Put a 3-quart pan filled halfway with water on a high burner to boil. Add a teaspoon of salt to the water.
Using a peeler, lay the asparagus down on cutting board and run the peeler down along the stalk, taking as little of the skin of as possible. Roll the stalk and peel the skin around the whole stalk. Do not run the peeler twice in the same spot or you will take the meat off and end up with nothing.
Fill a large bowl with water and add 4 to 6 ice cubes.
Place asparagus in the boiling water and count to 30 seconds. Do not walk away. Grab the asparagus with tongs and transfer to the ice bath.
Take the asparagus out of the water and cut each stalk in half lengthwise.
Cut the fatty portion off each slice of Serrano ham. Wrap the non fatty portion around each half-stalk of asparagus.
Open the can of tomatoes and place in a colander to drain. Tear the best 3 tomatoes into filets. Place on a plate. (For true San Marzano tomatoes, note the D.O.P. or Denominazione D’Origine Protetta on the side of the can, the 3 seals on the left side of the can).
To Assemble the Pizza:
Form the pizza dough according to the easy pizza dough recipe. Place the dough on a piece of parchment paper.
1. Pour the extra virgin olive oil onto the dough.
2., 3. Scatter the Manchego on the dough, followed by the fatty ham and the tomato filets.
4. Place the fresh mozzarella balls on top.
Place the pizza with the parchment on the preheated cookie sheet and close the oven. This pizza should cook in 10 to 12 minutes. Check for even cooking after 5 minutes and turn accordingly. The final pizza should be golden brown and more brown on the bottom.
Pull from oven and place aspargus on the pizza in spokes. You may have to trim the asparagus. Place one half mozarrella ball in the middle of the spoke. Serve immediately. Don’t cut this baby until you get a ‘wow factor’ response from your family or hungry guests.