Sunday, May 24, 2009

Savory Custards with Asparagus

A dear friend of ours needs to eat very soft foods at the moment. Most of her diet has been liquefied for a few days now. I was trying to come up something savory that isn't soup and suddenly it occurred to me that custard would be a good possibility. I was prepared to make up my own recipe, but Deborah Madison and Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone came to my aid yet again. I took her savory custard recipe, made it slightly larger (added 4 eggs instead of 3 because we had medium ones), and incorporated both garlic and asparagus.

Instead of leaving bits of garlic in the custard, I infused the garlic in the milk and eggs for an hour or so in the fridge and then strained the mixture. Madison wants you to strain it anyway, so I figured this would work well. My tasters tell me that the garlic came through nicely. (Indeed, I made a dish that I would never consider eating myself, as I dislike both cheese and asparagus. I do this with Elspeth all the time and am thrilled that so far her palate is more like her father's.)

Asparagus does seem awfully stringy for someone who needs liquid or super-soft food, I know. However, I put it through a food mill. Of course, that meant that the 6-8 lovely thin stalks ended up being only a few tablespoons worth. Thus, the custards were more asparagus-scented than anything. Even if you are unrestricted in your ability to eat textures, you may still wish to put the asparagus through a mill in order to keep the custardy goodness intact. If that is the case, you'll also want to double the amount of asparagus.

Our weekly trip to the farmers' market scored us the eggs and the organic asparagus, but we got the cheese from our co-op because I didn't want to risk a less-than-luscious texture for our friend by buying some locally-produced Fontina equivalent (and, as I don't eat cheese, I would have no idea what would make a good substitute).

Eaters looking for a bit more texture could try not only using minced or diced up bits of asparagus instead of milled, but also a bread crumb topping. I would recommend in that case omitting the garlic from the custards and instead using this garlic bread crumb recipe. I'll bet that cheese lovers could improve on the bread crumbs further by adding a little bit of Parmesan.

This would make a nice light supper accompanied by a salad. I'm delighted to report that our friend was able to eat and enjoy the custard, testament both to her recovery and to the softness of the meal.

Note that I made a second variation of this dish a few weeks later. Instead of scenting it with asparagus, I used caramelized onions (about 1/2 a very large onion), cooked spinach (1/2 c. total after cooking and milling) and lots of grated nutmeg. Very Frenchy, as a friend said. I love the combination of onions and nutmeg and it's so great with spinach, too.

INGREDIENTS
3-4 eggs (use more eggs if using medium eggs)
1 2/3 c. milk (I use whole these days and suspect it will work best, but feel free to experiment)
3/4 tsp salt
Pepper to taste
1 clove garlic put through a garlic press or finely minced (optional)
1/2 c. grated Fontina cheese
1/3 c. grated Parmesan cheese
1/2 c. cooked asparagus diced or put through a food mill (you'll want 1/2 cup volume regardless, so if you are going to put it through a food mill, you'll need quite a lot of asparagus to start out with)

DIRECTIONS
  1. Mix together the eggs, milk, salt, pepper and garlic in a bowl and set aside to infuse. If you're going to leave it for over 20 minutes, place in the refrigerator.
  2. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and lightly butter six 1-cup ramekins or custard cups
  3. Prepare to make a water bath by bringing a few cups of water to a boil and then taking it off the heat and setting it aside
  4. Prepare your asparagus and grate your cheeses (this lets the egg/milk/garlic mixture infuse as long as possible)
  5. Once all of your ingredients are prepared, strain the milk/egg mixture into a medium-sized bowl
  6. Add the remaining ingredients and stir well
  7. Pour the custard mixture into the six ramekins, distributing evenly. Sprinkle on the bread crumbs, if using
  8. Place ramekins in a 9 x 13 dish (mine is Pyrex), then place this on the oven shelf and pour the hot water into the dish (but not, of course, into the ramekins). You want the water to come halfway up the sides of the ramekins. Close up the oven
  9. Bake until the tops are starting to turn golden and the custards are set, about 20 minutes. Note that you still want a jiggly spot about the size of a dime in the center of each one
  10. Remove custards from the oven and water bath and let cool 5 minutes before serving
  11. Madison states that custards can be reheated by brushing the tops with milk or cream, covering with foil, and baking at 375 degrees for 15-25 minutes. This sounds a bit dubious to me since you're cooking it at higher heat for longer than you did originally, but this is what she says about reheating custards and timbales generally (not this recipe specifically)

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