The spring staple asparagus finds its way into a cold-weather dish in this recipe, combining artichokes and mushrooms with smoky spices and Cheddar cheese.
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Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Hold an asparagus spear with both hands, about 2 inches from the tip and the end. Gently bend the asparagus until it snaps. It will break at the point where the stem is too tough to be enjoyable; discard the stem. Repeat for all of your asparagus. Cook the asparagus in boiling water until crisp tender, 2-3 minutes. Drain and set aside.
Melt 3 tablespoons of the butter in a medium sauté pan set over medium-high heat. Add the shallots and garlic, and sauté until soft, about 5 minutes. Add the artichoke hearts and mushrooms, and cook until tender, about 10 minutes. Season with ¼ teaspoon of the salt and ¼ teaspoon of the pepper. Set aside.
Melt 2 tablespoons of the butter in a small bowl. Add the cracker crumbs and stir well. Put ¾ of the cracker crumbs in a 9 x 13 inch casserole dish that has been greased with cooking spray. Spoon the artichoke mixture on top of the crumbs and top with the asparagus.
Melt the remaining 2 tablespoons of the butter in a saucepan set over medium heat. Add the flour and cook until it turns light brown and forms a paste. Slowly stir in the heavy cream, cayenne, paprika, remaining ¼ teaspoon salt, and the remaining ¼ teaspoon pepper. Cook, stirring, until the mixture thickens, about 10 minutes. Pour the sauce over the vegetables, and sprinkle with the cheese and the remaining ¼ cup of cracker crumbs.
Bake for 25-30 minutes, or until the sauce is bubbly and the cheese is melted.