Tuesday, May 29, 2007

An asparagus sandwich and a new attitude

The small Texas town where I went to college had a surprising bounty of good restaurants despite its size. While I ate the majority of my meals either in Slater’s (what we called the cafeteria) or at home, once a week my friends and I would treat ourselves and go out to eat. Most of the time, we’d frequent joints that served those favorites that we hadn’t quite mastered in the kitchen yet—dishes such as chicken-fried steak, cheese enchiladas or fried catfish. But even though it was a small Texas town, contrary to the state’s beef-loving stereotype there was also a vegetarian café called The Tiffin Shop, which was housed in the back of the local health-food store. And in spite of my notions about health-food stores, I grew to love this little place, especially its asparagus sandwiches.

When I left home to go to college at 18, after a childhood filled with carob milk, gnarly sprouts and wheat germ, I had had my fill of health-food-store fare and vowed to never step foot in one again. But in the spring semester of my freshman year, some fellow classmates and myself decided to take our English professor to lunch so we could get to know her better. And being benevolent, we let her choose the spot. So what did she choose? But of course—the dreaded Tiffin Shop. I groaned to myself about the prospect of eating a meal at a health-food store, but I also knew that to make a fuss or, even worse, to not attend the luncheon would be bad form. So I went, but was convinced I would hate the food.

I wish I had a better memory of how I ended up ordering the asparagus sandwich, but it’s been, ahem, a few years since that fateful meal. I reckon it was either the cheapest thing on the menu (I was a poor college student, after all) or it was a choice between either asparagus or sautéed seitan slapped between two slices of bread, and at least I’d heard of asparagus. But no matter why I ordered it, I’m just thankful that I did.

It was a simple sandwich—just cream cheese, herbs and lightly cooked asparagus all nestled between Parmesan-coated toasted bread. But while there wasn’t much to it, somehow the combination of these ingredients made for a rich and flavorful experience. And for me, this crunchy, creamy, oh-so dreamy sandwich was a revelation: after a lifetime of being down on health-food stores, I decided the food on offer wasn’t all that bad. (Of course, all that cheese didn’t hurt either!)

Throughout the next three years, my friends and I often included the Tiffin Shop on our regular going-out rotation. The café offered a spectacular Indian menu as well, but I always opted for my beloved asparagus sandwich, as it was so superb. And after I graduated and first moved away from Texas, besides green sauce and flour tortillas, that special sandwich was one of the things I missed the most and was eager to recreate.

Making the filling was a cinch, but the crispy Parmesan crust eluded me. Because I didn’t know squat about cooking back then, the first time I tried to make it I sprinkled the cheese on the bread sans any fat, but the cheese just fell off when I took a bite. So I tried spreading olive oil on the bread before adding the cheese, which was fine, but not quite the creamy crunch I was aiming for. There were also some attempts using eggs and milk to create the cheesy crust, which lead to disastrous and disgusting results. Finally, I decided to dip the bread in melted butter before doing my cheese dredge and hurrah! At long last I had the asparagus sandwich of my dreams!

So, yes, this isn’t the lowest-calorie meal (which is probably why it was my favorite dish at the health-food store) but it is decidedly delicious. And during those few weeks when the local asparagus make their appearance at the market, I always whip up a batch or two. It’s been quite a few years since I had the original inspiration for the sandwich and, well, I can’t recall if the one I make tastes like The Tiffin Shop’s or not. But no matter, I’ve made it my own and even if it’s not quite what I ate all those years ago, it’s no less amazing. Plus each beautiful bite still takes me back to the moment when I realized not all health-food-store fare is something to shun and, instead, is something to embrace. Just don't make me go near the alfalfa sprouts!

Asparagus and cream cheese sandwich
Ingredients:
1 pound of fresh asparagus, chopped in 1-inch pieces
1 pound of cream cheese, softened
1 tablespoon of tarragon
Salt and pepper to taste
1/2 cup of finely grated Parmesan cheese
1/2 cup of butter, melted
8 slices of bread

Method:
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
Boil or steam the chopped asparagus for three minutes and then submerge in cold water.
Mix the cooked asparagus with the softened cream cheese, tarragon, salt and pepper.
Melt the butter in a saucepan.
Take each slice of bread and dip it into the melted butter and then sprinkle Parmesan cheese on one side of each piece.
Spread about 1/2 cup of the cream-cheese/asparagus filling on a slice of bread on the non-coated side, and top with another slice, leaving the Parmesan-coated sides on the outside.
Place assembled sandwiches on a greased sheet and bake in oven for 15-20 minutes, turning over once so both sides are browned.
Makes four sandwiches.

Note: I use tarragon because I have that lovely herb growing in my kitchen and I enjoy it freshly snipped, but the sandwich is also good with lemon thyme, chives, rosemary or whatever other herbs you fancy with your asparagus. But please be aware—the real stars of this sandwich are the crisp, cooked asparagus and Parmesan-coated bread—everything else is secondary.

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52 comments:

Jerry said...

this is a combination I never would have thought up on my own in a million years, but one I think I'm going to adapt, if that's OK, with you...

(I'm thinking asparagus in a shaped Parmesan crisp... Mmmmmm)

Thanks for the wonderul ideas as usual, Lisa!

Tavo said...

I'm going to spring this one on the kids. They're going to love it.

Jerry said...

LOVE LOVE LOVE Asparagus! However, I don't think the farmer's market has it fresh anymore, but I'll have to see when I'm back into town. I hate being away from austin for too long. Oh and I watch Diners, Drive Ins, and Dives last night and they talked about Louie Mueller Bar-B-Que in Taylor, TX, you ever been? I'm think of a day trip for some good Que. (Although, its very hard to beat Salt Lick and home cooked.)

wheresmymind said...

Whatever to low calorie...that looks fab!

Dr. Biggles said...

Hmmm, yeah. That looks tasty and all. But I can't help but think it'd be better with gravy.

Biggles

Patricia Scarpin said...

I love asparagus and thank heavens nowadays we can find good fresh ones here in Brazil.
This sandwich is packed with some of my favorite flavors - tks for sharing!

Frank M said...

I'm thinking of dropping an egg on that bad boy and a little hollandaise for brekky!!
FM

Tommy said...

Hey Tex,

Another good one.And good timing. We are right in the middle of asparagus season here in Southern Ontario and loving every minute of it. That recipe looks divine. I think you could coax most kids at least to take a bite and I think they might enjoy the taste of asparagus . What's not to like about it.

What did your favorite hangout do when asparagus was not in season ? Don't tell they used frozen. Nothing can replace local fresh asparagus.

Meeta said...

This looks really good. A wonderful combination of flavors. I think I will be making this for lunch tomorrow ;-)

s'kat said...

What an utterly fabulous idea! All that crunchy, golden bread wrapped around lush green asparagus. Perfect!

christine (myplateoryours) said...

Every time you talk about your childhood I get a chuckle. I have to think I would like your mom!

We are, alas, past asparagus season here. Sigh....

Matt said...

I'm always looking for ways to incorporate more asparagus into the diet and boy oh boy does this sandwich look phenomenal! I'll defiantly add this to the recipe list.

Kalyn said...

Oh my, this does sound just amazing.

Cynthia said...

A beautiful memory and a special, delicious sandwich to go with it.

Anonymous said...

wow, i should have known it was a fellow kangaroo behind this terrific blog.

i loved shanta at the tiffin shop and spent many meals with cynthia and berniece there.

thanks for the recipe! yours seems more healthy! i think shanta used canned asparagus...

Tim said...

I'm not going to fool anyone by saying I'm eating healthy if I eat that. But maybe I can fool them into thinking that I know gourmet?
Looks delicious!

Lydia said...

Great post! Food memory is a powerful thing. It's great that you've been able to recreate the memory -- and that you've shared it with us. I can't imagine any way of serving asparagus and cheese together that I would not love.

Mae said...

The asparagus sandwich do sound divine just by reading the ingredients.

Hmmm. I don't know what happened but this year, Spring came and so did the asparagus season and somehow, due to the hectic life i'm experiencing at mo, it just went past me. I didn't have one single bite of asparagus since its arrival!

Truffle said...

What a wonderful post and a beautiful sandwich!

Homesick Texan said...

Jerry--It's quite alright, and I love the idea of making a shaped Paremsan crisp!

Tavo--I bet the will!

Jerry--I ate there many years ago when I lived in Austin, but it's been a while--I'll have to return when I'm there in August! I should watch Diners etc., sounds very cool!

Wheresmymind--Isn't that usually the case? The higher the calories, the finer the taste!

Biggles--Everything's better with gravy!

Patricia--You're weclome, it's a real treat!

Frank--I love eating it for breakfast, but never thought to add an egg and hollandaise, though. Yum!

Tommy--That's a good question, I wasn't too concerned with seasonal eating back then, so perhaps they did use frozen. But a commenter down below says they might have used canned. Gasp!

Meeta--Enjoy!

S'Kat--It is indeed perfection. Such a party for the mouth!

Christine--Y'all would definitely get along, I reckon. And while the asparagus are gone, do you have cherries yet? I'm going nuts reading all the West Coast bloggers and their cherry creations!

Matt--Hope you like it!

Kalyn--It is, and while it's not completely South Beach friendly, you should give it a try.

Cynthia--Thank you, it is indeed delish!

Anon--Canned? Sheesh! Do I know you??? You obviously took some French courses!

Tim--Ha! Yes, not so healthy but a bit gourmet.

Lydia--Isn't it? That's been one of the joys of this blog, mining my memories.

Mae--What are you waiting for? Go get some before they're gone!

Truffle--Why thank you!

Olivia said...

Oh yes. Cheese is good. Where would we be without cheese?

Anyway, that sounds like a delicious sandwich. The good thing about being vegetarian or organic is the amount of creativity that ensues from the wide range of international/ethnic/ancient ingredients suddenly available.

(I am only demi-veg - I had a roast beef sandwich for lunch today in fact, though I really only eat beef a couple of times a year.)

As for Tiffin, I was surprised to read of it in Texas - it is indeed an Indian thing.

Alanna said...

A pound of cheese and a stick of butter? We could drink it!!

Ivonne said...

That is quite possibly the most beautiful use of bread and butter that I have ever seen.

I give it a perfect 10!

Culinarily Curious said...

I'm with Ivonne. And asparagus makes it healthy, right?

Culinary Cowgirl said...

Isn't it strange how we avoid things that we are unfamiliar with? I did that too...then gave in...only to discover the cafe I was so afraid of was the best place for soup I had ever been.

This sandwich sounds sinful. I must make it. I would think it would also make for a great appetizer, cut into small bites. Thanks for sharing!

Sylvia said...

Is unusual asparagus in a sandwich ,but I like the idea . Nice blog.

Greg Turner said...

Fantastic photos and a fantastic recipe! Sounds utterly delicious :)

Homesick Texan said...

Olivia--We would be lost and hungry without cheese! And the shop was owned by Indians so the name makes sense.

Alanna--Ha! It's very dairy-heavy but still so good.

Ivonne--Well, well, I don't know if I've ever scored a perfect 10. Wow and thank you!

Culinary Curious--Of course! The asparagus make it very healthy!

Culinary Cowgirl--That's a great idea, it's so rich that cutting it into small bites would make it a perfect appetizer. And you're right, often the things we're most scared of turn out to be the things we love the most.

Sylvia--Thank you!

Greg--Thanks! Try it if you still have fresh asparagus in Florida as it is indeed very delish!

Yvo said...

Sounds delicious and looks even better!!!! Your bread looks special, what kind is it? Mmm...

Mercedes said...

This sounds wonderfully indulgent!

jane said...

An unusual idea, with traditional combination of ingredients, asparagus and parm. I will definitely try this with my own local asparagus.

O'Dub said...

Great post. You really have a gift for writing and photography. The sandwich sounds divine.

I am curious, however, why don't you grill/toast it on a griddle, like a grilled cheese sandwich?

milcolores said...

Very nice blog ^_^

ann said...

what an unusual sandwich! I would never think of slapping spargel in between two slices of bread. I'd be afraid they'd roll off. you know what would make this even more insane? A fried egg. That would send it into stratospheres of ridiculous deliciousness!!

Homesick Texan said...

Yvo--Thanks! And it's just a round loaf of Italian bread I picked up at Whole Foods.

Mercedes--Oh, how it is!

Jane--Enjoy!

O'Dub--Why thank you! What a sweet thing to say! I don't toast it in my skillet because I had problems with the cheese either not sticking to the bread and/or getting too burned.

Milcolores--Thank you!

Ann--The cream cheese keeps the asparagus from rolling off, and I love the addition of a fried egg. Frank suggested an egg with Hollandaise. Talk about stratospheric!

Vanessa said...

"carob milk, gnarly sprouts and wheat germ" - ha! Don't forget apple juice concentrate instead of sugar.

Teri M. said...

Yummy! I just happen to have some asparagus in my fridge right now. I'll definitely have to try this.

p.s. foundja on Flickr :)

Homesick Texan said...

Vanessa--Yep, especially the extra-fuzzy kind of apple juice.

Teri--Enjoy!

RickE Rudd said...

Using canned asparagus for this recipe would be a shame.

Frozen could work, but canned ? Make me hurl why don't ya.

Hey you might get a can that's only a few years old and hasn't taken on too metallic a taste yet.

Linda said...

i cant wait to have this for dinner! reminds me of something 'ino might put together. looks absolutely mouth watering!

Lisa said...

That is just wonderful! And the photos, they make you just want to pick the thing up and take a huge bite. Asparagus is at the market, so guess what I'm going to do with it next??

Wow. Thank heavens for health-food stores, eh?

Homesick Texan said...

Linda--That's high praise comparing this to 'ino, many thanks!

Lisa--Just be sure and eat it after you hug it! And yep, thank heavens for health-food stores!

Garrett said...

OMG, I think I must try this. THis sammich just sounds toooo good!

centrs said...

oh.my.god. we went to the same college. i found your blog randomly doing a search for "ranch style beans"...as soon as i saw the words, "college" and "asparagus" and saw the photo - i knew you must have gone to a.c. i scanned down to see "tiffin shop". i have tried to recreate that sandwich many times.

Scribbit said...

That looks amazingly delicious. And the way my family feels about asparagus I'd get the whole batch for myself.

Homesick Texan said...

Garrett--You'll love it!

Centrs--Welcome! Hope the recipe meets with your expectations. When did you go to AC? I graduated in '91, were we there at the same time?

Scribbit-See, that's the brilliance of the sandwich, it can make anyone love asparagus!

Anonymous said...

Hah- I had the same type of mom-- whole wheat and honey birthday cake sound familiar?? Although you should give alfalfa sprouts another try, especially on a sandwich with lots of avocado, or on a cream cheese spread bagel with salami. Can't wait to try the asparagus sandwich!

turtle said...

My mom and I went to the same place and had the same sandwich. That was our special place where just the 2 of us went! The place was cool and the sandwiches were dynamo! I was so excited to see this when I googled the recipe for the sandwiches, thank you and thank you for the memory! Oh yeah that was the place for my first smoothie!

Anonymous said...

Who would've thought the few simple ingredients could produce a fabulous gourmet sandwich? I thoroughly enjoy your blog site and sense of humor. THANK YOU!
- Mary L. from Boston

Anonymous said...

Ha! So funny! I can't believe I found this. She keeps her recipie very secret. This is not exactly it. There is some ingredient mixed in that we never could peg. But your right, the chese bread is the awsome part. In case you don't know she actually owns a restaurant there now. It's probably the nicest restaurant in town. She rarely cooks the sandwich anymore. Nobody knows why. You see I grew up in the town you went to college in. I still go back there rather often. My parents still live there. I always loved the tiffin shop. Cheers.

Anonymous said...

So I had this sandwich (made into finger food) at a baby shower in Amarillo 4 years ago. I swear I've dreamed about it ever since! I am beyond overjoyed that you posted this!!!
Andi

Pechluck said...

As soon as I saw this post, I had to have the sandwich and made do with that I had on hand- the important part being that parmesan crusted bread! Indeed delicious, thanks for the inspiration

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