This family-friendly side dish is a delicious new take on potatoes au gratin. Yes, it’s still cheesy comfort food, but the fresh asparagus means it won’t leave you in a food coma. If you’ve ever made homemade macaroni and cheese, this technique will be familiar: you’ll make a bechamel sauce and top it with buttery breadcrumbs. In fact, you could double the sauce, toss it with pasta, stick it in the freezer and have mac and cheese ready to go whenever you need a quick dinner. For this dish, look for thick asparagus spears (not the pencil-thin ones) which will hold up better when served.
4 tablespoons (½ stick) unsalted butter, divided, plus more for baking dish
2 teaspoons kosher salt, divided, plus more for blanching water
2 pounds fresh asparagus, trimmed
½ teaspoon freshly-ground black pepper, divided
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
1½ cups whole milk
3 ounces Gruyère cheese, grated (about ¾ cup)
3 ounces white cheddar cheese, grated (about ¾ cup)
1 cup Panko (Japanese-style breadcrumbs)
How to Make It
Preheat oven to 400°F with rack in highest position. Butter a 3-quart baking dish.
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over high. Add half of the asparagus and cook until crisp-tender, 2 to 4 minutes (depending on thickness of spears). Remove with tongs, letting excess water drip off, and transfer to prepared dish. Repeat with remaining asparagus; toss with 1 teaspoon of the salt and ¼ teaspoon of the black pepper.
Discard water; melt 2 tablespoons of the butter in same pot over medium-low. Whisk in flour and cayenne and cook, stirring constantly, until fragrant and slightly darker in color, about 2 minutes. Slowly whisk in milk. Increase heat to medium, and simmer, whisking often, until thickened, about 5 minutes. Slowly add Gruyère, cheddar, ½ teaspoon of the salt, and remaining ¼ teaspoon black pepper, and whisk until cheese is melted. Pour cheese sauce evenly over asparagus.
Melt remaining 2 tablespoons butter in a skillet over medium; stir in Panko and remaining ½ teaspoon salt. Scatter over asparagus.
Bake until warmed through, 8 to 10 minutes. Increase oven temperature to broil; broil until breadcrumbs are golden brown, 1 to 2 minutes.
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