Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Joey's Asparagus and Mushroom Casserole

  Ok here goes my flight of ideas..  Are you ready? Here we go:
I was thinking of coming up with a variation on the favorite classic green bean casserole, which my Mom always called Green Bean Bake. I liked the idea of doing a creamy mushroom sauce just like the classic, but instead of doing green beans, I decided to go with asparagus. So far so good. I sauteed mushrooms and onions, added the asparagus, made a basic white sauce and then baked the whole thing. It was pretty good, (in fact, my friend Nate said it was his favorite part of this year's Friendsgiving), but for me, it was kind of missing something. It needed another element. Cheese? Maybe, but what kind? Bacon? YES! How could that be a bad thing? Hmm.. So then I regrouped to see where things landed: Asparagus, mushrooms, onions, bacon... all good. Now what about the sauce....definitely staying with the basic white sauce instead of the classic canned soup ... and now the cheese... but what kind? Well, I don't want it to be like a mac and cheese sauce, so maybe not Cheddar.. I decided to go with mozzarella because it would give me that gooey cheese factor and it would brown nicely on top. Would all of that work?? Absolutely! Am I happy with the result? Definitely! It really hits all the points from the Green Bean Bake, and it's still something new and delicious. Maybe next time, I'll even top it with French fried onion rings, just for a little added texture! Who knows? Maybe THIS one will wind up being a classic too!

1 lb fresh asparagus
10 oz Cremini mushrooms
1/2 lb bacon
1 large sweet onion
1 large clove garlic
1-2 tsp fresh thyme leaves
2 tbs butter, if needed
2 tbs flour
1 cup milk
Salt and pepper to taste
1 cup shredded mozzarella cheese

First, do all of your prep:
Trim off the tough woody ends of the asparagus and cut the spears into one inch pieces. Slice mushrooms. Chop onions. Slice bacon into small lardons. Mince garlic. Strip the thyme sprigs of their leaves.
Since different ingredients have different cooking times,  all you do is saute each thing separately, then add it to a big mixing bowl.
Here we go:
In a large pan, over medium heat, saute bacon until crisp, allowing the fat to render. Remove bacon to a big mixing bowl. Remove and reserve all but a couple tbs of fat from the pan. Add the onions. Saute until they begin to soften. Add asparagus. Toss and saute for a few minutes until the asparagus are bright green and crisp tender. Add garlic. Continue to cook for a minute or two. Add to the bowl with the bacon. Add mushrooms to the pan. Resist the urge to add more bacon fat to the pan! I know it seems like the pan is dry, but soon there will be a ton of moisture coming from the mushrooms. Saute until most of the moisture has evaporated and the mushrooms have become brown and slightly sticky. Add fresh thyme leaves to the mushrooms and let it cook for another minute. Add mushrooms to the mixing bowl with the other ingredients. Add about 2-3 tbs of bacon fat (or butter) to the pan. Add the same amount of flour. Use a whisk to combine and let it cook for about a minute, then add milk. Whisk to get out any lumps. Season with salt and pepper. Stir until it begins to thicken. Pour thickened cream sauce into mixing bowl over other ingredients. Add half cup of cheese to the bowl. Stir until well combined and coated with sauce. Adjust seasoning if needed. Pour into 2 qt casserole dish. Top with the rest of the mozzarella cheese. Bake at 350ºF for 20-30 minutes or until the cheese is melted and the sauce is bubbly.

The first time I made this, I added quite a lot of bacon. Sounds good, right? But here's the thing.. the smokiness from the bacon wound up taking over the whole thing, so maybe in just this ONE instance, we can allow ourselves to cut the bacon down to about 1/2 pound.
Speaking of bacon, yes the bacon is salty, but you'll still need to add some salt. Make sure you taste it to season it properly! And don't forget the black pepper!
One of the key ingredients is the fresh thyme. I suppose you can use dried thyme, but for me there's just nothing like fresh. It makes all the difference, so much so that I would make a special trip to the store to get it. Just sayin!

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