I love cooking with seasonal ingredients, especially when they are locally sourced and therefore at their freshest. This recipe is a good example of sustainable cooking: it features the iconic Slovak cheese, the asparagus grown in local farms, and bear garlic – a herb that is widely available in our woods and forests right now.
Asparagus is a spring vegetable that has a short growing season, at least the white variety grown in Slovakia. If I want to buy nice and tender asparagus from our farms, I have to start looking for it in late April or early May, because it will only be available for a few weeks.
Most asparagus recipes suggest trimming off woody ends of the stalks, but it is not always necessary in young plants. My preferred method of cooking asparagus is to let it simmer in water for 6 – 12 minutes, depending on how fibrous the stalks are. The lower parts go in first, the thin tips need less time to become tender. I’m talking of the Slovak cultivar here, so it might be different for other asparagus varieties.
Bryndza (pronounced as brinza) is a soft Slovak cheese made from sheep’s milk. When they start grazing pastures after Easter, the sheep’s milk is brimming with nutrients, and so the cheese that comes to our shops in May is considered of the best quality and highest nutritional value.
It’s quite unlikely you’ll get bryndza unless you live in Slovakia or Czechia, but feel free to replace it with a quality farmer’s cheese that is soft enough to be cooked into a sauce.
Bear garlic (Allium ursinum, or medvedí cesnak in Slovak), is a wild herb known under many different names, the most common being wild garlic, ramsons, cow’s leek or wood garlic. And if you wonder why it is called bear garlic in Slovakia, here’s an explanation: it’s the first herb that appears in our woods and forests after winter, and bears use it to cleanse their bodies, as well as restart their metabolism after the long winter sleep.
I love the taste and aroma of bear garlic. Rinsed and chopped, I put it on my slice of buttered bread, as well as in all sorts of soups in springtime. It adds a wonderful punch to a pesto or a cheese stuffing. I also used it in this millet stir-fry.
Asparagus with Roast Potatoes and Garlicky Bryndza Cheese Sauce
- 500 g asparagus
- 4 large potatoes
- 2 tablespoons cornmeal
- 5 tablespoons oil, divided
- 300 ml whole milk
- 125 g bryndza cheese (or a soft cheese of your choice)
- a handful of bear garlic leaves
- salt and black pepper to taste
- caraway seeds (optional)
- Take the cheese out of the fridge and let it come to room temperature. Peel the potatoes, wash and dice them, and distribute evenly around a roasting tin. Sprinkle with coarse sea salt and some caraway seeds, grind some black pepper over the top and drizzle with 3 tablespoons of oil. Place in the oven preheated to 200°C (392°F) and roast for 30 – 40 minutes, depending on the type of your potatoes and their cut size.
- Meanwhile, trim the woody ends off your asparagus stalks if needed. Also, thinly peel off the outer layer if it feels too fibrous. Cut the stalks in half, rinse under running water and put in a small cooking pot. The lower, thicker parts will go in first, as they need more time to cook. Cover with water and bring to a simmer. Add the thin tips of the asparagus halfway through the cooking (see the notes above).
- When the asparagus is cooked to your desired tenderness, cover the pot with a lid and keep warm. Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a saucepan and add the cornmeal. Stir for 2 minutes, then add the milk. Continue cooking over medium heat, stirring often, until the mixture starts to thicken. Turn off the heat and spoon in the cheese. Let it dissolve in the hot roux, moving the lumps of cheese around the pan with a wooden spatula. If the sauce is too thick for your liking, stir in some warm cooking liquid from the asparagus. Season to taste with salt and black pepper.
- Rinse the garlic leaves under running water, chop on a wooden board and add to the cheese sauce. When the potatoes are cooked through and golden brown on the surface, take them out of the oven. Arrange on plates with a few stalks of the cooked asparagus and pour the warm cheese sauce over them. Serve immediately.
The bryndza cheese sauce leftovers will store well in the fridge if placed in an airtight container, and so will the asparagus. Both can be reheated in a microwave.