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Updated Southern Cooking:
Ham Cakes with Roasted Asparagus and Bell Pepper-Vidalia Onion Coulis

John Tullock

Asparagus, that ancient and often expensive sprout, is at its best in late spring. By the most fortunate of coincidences, the legendary Vidalia onion appears at the same time. Consider pairing these two subtle, sweet vegetables with ham, a meat which is frequently accompanied by sweet flavors, in this elegant and visually appealing entree for a romantic dinner for two.

Virtually all the prep work for this meal can be done in advance. Keep the rest of the menu simple and straightforward. A light consomme or perhaps a chilled soup such as gazpacho or vichysoisse would make a suitable first course. For dessert, think fresh strawberries, also in season just now.

Prepare the coulis by simmering one medium Vidalia onion, sliced thinly, in 2 tablespoons unsalted butter until translucent. Keep the heat low, and do not allow the onion to brown. It should become a light golden color. Add 2 red bell peppers, seeded and chopped, and 1-1/2 cups chicken stock. Bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce the heat and simmer until the peppers are soft about 5 minutes. Transfer to a blender, allow to cool at least 15 minutes, and puree. Strain through a sieve and refrigerate until ready to serve.

Prepare the ham cakes. Heat a tablespoon of olive oil or unsalted butter in small skillet over medium heat. Add 2 tablespoons finely minced red bell peppers, 1/4 cup finely chopped scallions (white part only) and one clove of garlic, finely minced. When the vegetables are tender, transfer them to a bowl and allow to cool. Then add 3/4 cup chopped or minced ham. (Canned ham works well for this recipe. Drain well and shred with a fork before measuring. Exact amounts are not critical for this recipe.) To the ham and vegetable mixture, add 2 tablespoons mayonnaise, 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard, 2 tablespoons minced scallion greens, salt, pepper and enough beaten egg to thoroughly moisten the mixture. (This should take about half a large egg. Beat the egg well in a small bowl and add it by spoonfuls as you turn the mixture in the bowl.) Prepare about a cup of cracker crumbs by crumbling saltines in a food processor, or by hand. Add the crumbs in portions to the ham mixture, turning gently with a wooden spoon until the mixture holds together and starts to look a little dry. You may not need to add all the crumbs. Sprinkle a layer of crumbs onto a plate that has been lined with waxed paper. Using two spoons, form the ham mixture into small cakes, each about an inch and a half in diameter. Place them on the plate. When all of the cakes are formed (there should be about 6), sprinkle the tops with more cracker crumbs. Press gently with the back of a spoon to coat the cakes evenly with crumbs. Refrigerate, covered with another sheet of waxed paper, at least one hour, and up to eight hours, before continuing.

Prepare the asparagus by rinsing it thoroughly and breaking off the tough end of the stalk. You need at least eight stalks, each about six inches in length, for this recipe. Never buy asparagus, by the way, by simply picking up the bundle that the grocery displays. This will invariably contain some inferior spears that are either too small, too dehydrated, or have the tips damaged. Asparagus is one of the costliest vegetables, so I take the time to pick out top quality spears. Besides, paying for a whole bundle, usually slightly over a pound, when you only need a few spears makes no sense. Once you have cleaned and trimmed the asparagus, place it, tips upright in a large tumbler or jar. Add about an inch of cold water to the jar, and sprinkle in a pinch of sugar. Place the whole thing in the refrigerator for several hours. Refreshing the asparagus in this way restores some but by no means all of the freshly-picked taste.

Preheat the oven to 425F. Drain the asparagus, blot dry with paper towels, and place it in a shallow roasting pan with a tablespoon of olive oil. Shake the pan to roll the stalks around, coating them with the oil and settling them into a single layer. Place the asparagus on the top rack of the preheated oven. Watch carefully, shaking the pan gently at least once to turn the spears during the cooking process. Be extremely careful not to splash your skin with hot oil. When the spears have turned bright green and many of them are beginning to develop a golden brown coloration near the tips, remove the pan from the oven, turn off the heat, and allow the asparagus to cool in the oil for a couple of minutes. It will continue to cook in the hot oil. Check for doneness by testing with a fork near the bottom of the stalk. Remove the asparagus to a plate lined with paper towels, and cover loosely with foil. In a nonstick skillet, melt 2 tablespoons of butter over medium heat. When the foam subsides, add the ham cakes, in batches if necessary, and brown them on both sides, turning once. As they are cooked, transfer the cakes to a plate and place in the warm oven.

Meanwhile, reheat the coulis over gentle heat until it is hot but not boiling. Ladle a pool of the coulis into the center of a warmed plate. On top of the coulis, arrange the asparagus like the spokes of a wheel. Place three of the ham cakes in the center. Garnish with minced fresh herbs, such as parsley, chives, basil or a combination.

The sweetness of the Vidalia onions, asparagus and peppers may make this dish hard to pair with a wine. Instead, try serving it with a top quality imported or microbrew beer that has a light character and not too much hops.

John Tullock is an expert gardener and self-taught cook who likes to develop new recipes using his own fresh produce and the best from the local market. His interest in plants and horticulture begin in childhood, and he holds a masters degree in biology from The University of Tennessee. He also co-owns "Native Sons Nursery," a retail business that specializes in rare ornamental and gourmet vegetable plants.

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