Benchmark Chef Loves Asparagus
Let asparagus, burrata, and green garlic grace your table.
Photo by Lori Eanes
It may not be as sexy as peaches in the summer or corn in the fall, but the appearance of asparagus in farmers markets signals the coming of spring for many in the Bay Area.
That’s the case with Peter Swanson, executive chef and co-owner with his wife, Melissa, of Benchmark Pizza in Kensington and a new location opening soon in Old Oakland.
“Personally, I really get excited when I see it. But I don’t know that everyone feels the same as I do,” Swanson said with a chuckle.
Indeed, asparagus isn’t the kind of food that tends to inspire full-page spreads in Food & Wine. Whether it’s the way that it has traditionally been prepared in this country — blanched and served mostly unadorned — or the fact that it’s available pretty much year-round in supermarkets, asparagus tends to be lumped in among the likes of Brussels sprouts and broccoli as one of those obligatory side vegetables whose consumption can feel more akin to a homework assignment than a culinary pleasure.
Swanson can relate. He ate more than his fair share as a kid raised by vegetarian parents in rural Michigan across the street from an asparagus field (his family would pick stalks fresh for meals). But perhaps because he had access to such a fresh source, he remains enchanted with the taste, describing it as “grassy, a little lemony, and citrusy — just completely its own flavor.”
So, he takes advantage when it becomes available here — roughly from February through June — by loading up on organic inventory from River Dog and Full Belly farms in the Capay Valley. Most importantly for diners at Benchmark, Swanson doesn’t limit the vegetable to plain-Jane side dish status.
“I use it in everything,” Swanson said. “It’s super versatile. We utilize it 100 different ways: On pizza, in pasta sauce, soup, antipasti.”
In particular, when he does serve it whole to order — as in the case of his asparagus with burrata and green garlic — he prefers to roast it in the kitchen’s wood-fired oven. “The charring adds a whole other flavor element,” he said. “Add some good olive oil and salt and it’s super good just on its own.”
Local asparagus is available at many farmers markets in the spring, and Swanson said to look for bright, stiff stalks, not shriveled or limp. It’s also important to keep it stored cold and upright. He highly recommends not waiting long to cook it.
Roasted Asparagus With Burrata & Green Garlic
Executive Chef Peter Swanson,
Benchmark Oakland (opening summer)
1 bunch asparagus
12 stems green garlic
1 ball mozzarella burrata (specialty mozzarella to which cream is added and available in specialty cheese shops)
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 slice day-old country round bread (or your favorite), toasted
Salt to taste
Extra Virgin Olive Oil to finish/taste
Sprinkle Marash pepper
Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Snap ends off asparagus and rinse. Place on a sheet tray and drizzle with 1 tablespoon of olive oil and sprinkle with salt. Use your hands to toss together until each spear is coated with the oil and salt. Bake in the oven until slightly browned and crispy, around 10 to 15 minutes.
While the asparagus is cooking, remove stems from green garlic and the tough green tops. Rinse, then chop finely. Add to a pan with the remaining olive oil and butter and salt to taste. Cook down until soft, adjusting seasoning if needed.
Smear the garlic mixture onto your toast. Place burrata next to toast and puncture it with fork and pull apart, to allow some of the cream to fall out. Sprinkle with salt and Marash pepper and drizzle with olive oil.
Place asparagus in between toast and burrata. Eat with knife and fork. Serves 2