Hadley, a neighboring town near Amherst, Massachusetts, where I live, is famous for its asparagus. In late spring, around mid-May, when the crops finally arrive, everyone rushes to buy a bunch. Farmers sell bundles of the handsome spears at outdoor markets and roadside stands, and not to be outdone, our groceries all display the verdant stalks with signs noting that they are LOCAL!
Over the years, I’ve created more than one dish inspired by this harvest. Smooth, silky asparagus bisque topped with crème fraîche and crab, golden puff pastry tarts filled with sliced asparagus and shiitakes, and risotto with asparagus, prosciutto, and Parmesan, were all created during “our asparagus season.” My latest invention, creamy asparagus flans scented with chives and tarragon, are ideal as the centerpiece for a delicious, yet easy warm weather brunch.Blanched asparagus spears are pureed in a food processor along with a savory custard of eggs, crème fraiche, and Gruyère. Fresh spring herbs round out the flavorings. The flan mixture is ladled into ramekins, then placed in a water bath, and put in the oven. When set, the celadon-hued flans are unmolded and arranged on plates garnished simply but strikingly with a few asparagus tips and whole chives.
The flans can be baked and unmolded a day ahead so that they only need reheating at serving time. Offer them with smoked salmon toasts (toasted bread slices topped with smoked salmon, a generous grating of black pepper, a sprinkle of capers, and a squeeze or two of lemon). Add a salad of thinly sliced radishes and cucumbers, paired with chopped red onions in a tarragon vinaigrette, and your spring brunch menu is complete!
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Creamy Asparagus Flans with Tarragon and Chives
1 pd. slim asparagus
4 large eggs
2 large egg yolks
3 /4 cup crème fraîche
3/ 4 cup grated Gruyère
1 tbsp chopped fresh tarragon
1 1/2 tsp chopped chives plus extra whole chives for the garnish
Sea salt such as fleur de sel
1. Arrange a rack in the middle and preheat the oven to 325 degrees F. Butter eight 1/2 cup ramekins, and cut 8 rounds of parchment paper to fit the bottom of each. Butter the paper. Place ramekins in a baking pan large enough to hold them in a single layer.
2. Snap off and discard tough bases from the asparagus. Then cut off the spears along with about 1 inch of the stems and add these to a large saucepan of boiling salted water. Cook until just tender, 2 to 3 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon to a colander, and rinse under cold running water until cool. Pat dry and set aside for the garnish.
3. Keep the pan of water boiling while you cut the remaining stalks into 1-inch pieces. Add them to the saucepan and cook until tender when pierced with a sharp knife, about 4 minutes. Transfer to a colander and place under cold running water until cool. Pat dry, and add them to the bowl of a food processor.
4. In a medium bowl, whisk together whole eggs and egg yolks until well blended. Then whisk in crème fraiche, Gruyère, tarragon, chives, and 1 /2 teaspoon salt. Add to the food processor, and pulse until mixture is well blended, but still has flakes of green and cheese. Transfer to a large measuring cup with a spout, and pour mixture, dividing it evenly, into the ramekins.
5. Pour enough hot water into the pan to come halfway up the sides of the ramekins. Transfer flans to the oven and bake until set, and a small, sharp knife inserted into the centers comes out clean, 20 to 25 minutes. Using pot holders, remove ramekins to a cooling rack for 5 minutes.
6. Run a sharp paring knife around the inside edges of each flan to loosen, and then invert and remove paper. Tap on the bottom of a ramekin if a flan doesn’t drop out immediately. Discard parchment rounds. (Flans can be baked 1 day ahead. Cool, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate. Bring to room temperature, and then reheat, uncovered, on a parchment- or foil-lined baking sheet in a preheated 350-degree oven for 10 minutes. To reheat the spears for garnish, drop in boiling water for 1 minute; then drain and pat dry.)
7. Arrange flans on eight salad plates and garnish each with a few reserved asparagus spears. Sprinkle spears with some sea salt. Then garnish top of flan with two or three whole chives. Serves 8
Copyright Betty Rosbottom 2019