Cazuela de Esparragus Trigueros (Andalusian Asparagus)
Each spring, the wild asparagus season is a much-anticipated event in Spain. The thin green stalks have a slight bitterness, unlike their sweeter cultivated kin. Look for cultivated pencil-thin asparagus to approximate the character of this Andalusian dish.
1 pound pencil-thin asparagus spears
1/4 cup olive oil
4 cloves garlic
2 slices country bread, crusts removed
1/4 teaspoon saffron
threads, warmed and crushed
1 teaspoon sweet paprika
8 black peppercorns
1/2 teaspoon salt
, plus a pinch
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
3 large eggs
Preheat the oven to 350°F.
Trim off the tough ends from the asparagus spears, then cut the stalks into 2-inch pieces. Bring a saucepan filled with salted water to a boil, add the asparagus, and cook until tender, about 3 minutes. Drain, reserving 2 cups of the cooking water, and set the asparagus and water aside separately.
To make a picada, in a frying pan, heat the oil over medium-high heat. Add the garlic and bread and fry, turning as needed, until golden, 4 to 5 minutes. Transfer the garlic and bread to a mortar, and set the pan aside. (Do not clean the pan. You want the garlicky oil to remain.) Add the saffron, paprika, peppercorns, and 1/2 teaspoon salt to the mortar and pound with a pestle until finely ground. Add 1 cup of the reserved cooking water and mix well. Or, combine the ingredients in a small processor or blender and pulse until finely ground, and then add the cooking water and process until mixed.
Return the pan with the garlic oil to medium heat, add the asparagus, and warm through. Add the picada and the vinegar, reduce the heat to low, and cook, stirring, for 3 to 4 minutes to coat the asparagus. If the mixture seems too dry, add a little of the remaining cooking water. Remove from the heat.
In a bowl, beat the eggs with 5 tablespoons water and a pinch of salt. Place 4 cazuelitas or ramekins on a rimmed baking sheet, and divide the asparagus evenly among the ramekins. Top with the egg mixture. Bake until the eggs are set, about 15 minutes. Remove from the oven and serve hot or warm.