A few times a year, I go on a Dinner Intervention, which might sound a little more gentle than it is. It sounds like a “Honey, I was thinking I’ll do something different with dinner this week” but in reality it is more of a “Gah, I am so sick of take-out and fobbed together meals! I’ve had enough!” wherein I throw down the proverbial spatula and demand we do better.
Dinner is not my strong suit; I love side dishes and “tapas-style” meals (a joke consisting of bits and pieces of leftovers from the fridge meals.) I’ve got pancakes, slaws and potatoes down pat, but when it comes down to what I consider the Holy Grail of home cooking — Getting Dinner On The Table with any regularity — I fall woefully short. Seeing as we can get great salads, hummus platters and cracker-thin pizzas delivered in no time, why would I want to bother cranking up the broiler?
Fortunately, I do, that is, want to bother, due to a confluence of events. First, the markets are finally brimming with local spring produce that I’m hauling home by the armload. Nothing I can order for dinner tastes or looks half as good. And second, we’re on the verge of reaching the age where we’ve got a little person at the table with us, a little person who I will not be feeding bits of takeout Pad Thai for dinner. So it’s time to get our dinner act together, once and for all.
I’m starting with my favorite trick for those at a dinner impasse: throw an egg on it. For now, it’s the answer to almost all of my dinner woes. “I made a batch of creamed chard and spring onions, now what?” Or earlier this week: “I’ve got a beautiful bundle of ramps languishing in the fridge, how can I make this dinner?”* In almost every case, some toasted hearty bread plus a fried egg made these things a meal. Spicy tomato stew becomes shakshuka; warm mushroom salad becomes an entree, ginger fried rice becomes a meal you still dream about, months later, and punchy, bright potatoes are given excuse to shine as a main course.
And last night, with an attempt at a lighter approach to hash — yes, like hash browns or corned beef hash, but with crunchy New Jersey asparagus — we didn’t even need the hunk of bread to yield a satisfying late dinner. I’ve been thinking about ways to reinvent hash since I tried a tasty but heavy riff on it with shredded short ribs this past winter. With spring here (or summer, really, with the hellacious upper-80s scattered storms humidity we’ve had this week) few things are more welcome than a single-pan meal that allows me to whittle away at my farmers market haul without cranking up the oven.
* Thinly slice cleaned ramps, keeping the bulbs and greens separate. Sauté the bulbs in butter and/or oil until softly caramelized, about 5 to 10 minutes, then add the greens and cook for 5 minutes more. Season with salt and pepper. Spread it on a piece of toast. If you’ve got Canadian bacon around, crisp up a thin slice and put that on the toast first, before the ramps. If you’ve got grated gruyère or goat cheese, use that too. Fry an egg and le voila! The most delicious open-faced
breakfast dinner sandwich, yet. Do try this!
Spring Asparagus Pancetta Hash
I know I say this a lot, but this is indeed a flexible recipe. The core idea is a one-pan hash that is lighter than the expected versions and full of texture; whether you get to this place with yellow potatoes or Russets, slab bacon or pancetta, asparagus or something else that struck your fancy at the market that week doesn’t much matter. You don’t even need to put an egg on it, if you’re more in a broiled salmon or grilled cutlets kind of place tonight. But it’s not half bad just the way it is, and I suspect this is going to become a weekend morning staple. And yes, that’s my husband you hear cheering in the background; he gets that way around cured pork products.
Makes enough to top with four fried eggs
1/4 pound pancetta (a cured pork that is less salty than proscuitto, and not smoked like bacon), cut into 1/4-inch dice
1 pound Yukon gold potatoes, peeled and cut into a 1/2-inch dice
1 small yellow onion, chopped small
1/2 pound asparagus, tough ends trimmed and cut into 1-inch segments
Salt and pepper to taste
Serving ideas: Fried eggs, dabs of goat cheese and slivers of green onions
Heat a 12-inch cast iron frying pan over medium heat. Fry the pancetta, turning it frequently so that it browns and crisps on all sides; this takes about 10 minutes. Remove it with a slotted spoon and drain it on paper towels. Leave the heat on and the renderings in the pan. (With a well-seasoned cast iron, this should be all the fat you need to cook the remainder of the hash. If you’re not using a cast iron, you might need to add a tablespoon or so of oil; if you’ve skipped the pork, you’ll want to start with 2 tablespoons oil.)
Add the potatoes don’t move them for a couple minutes. Use this time to season them well with salt and pepper. Once they’ve gotten a little brown underneath, begin flipping and turning them, then letting them cook again for a few minutes. The idea is not to fight them off the frying pan, once they’ve gotten a little color, it’s easier to flip them and you’ve gotten closer to your goal of getting them evenly browned.
When the potatoes are about three-fourths as crisped and brown as you’d like them — this takes about 15 minutes — add the onion. (I add this now, not earlier, because I find it often burns before the potatoes are done.) Cook for an additional 5 minutes. Add the asparagus, cover the pan and cook for 5 to 8 minutes, or until crisply cooked. (Skinny asparagus will take just 5 minutes; thicker asparagus will take longer.) Remove the lid, return the pancetta to the pan for another minute, to reheat. Taste for seasoning and adjust if needed. Serve immediately.